I’ll say it – this Six Nations, even without fans, was the best instalment for a while in northern hemisphere rugby.
Eight games decided within five points of each other. Wales won the Triple Crown and title but lost to France. France lost to England. Ireland beat England. Scotland beat France. Virtually any half-decent team beat Eddie Jones’ men.
With the buoyant news that this summer’s marquee Lions tour of the Republic is happening as expected, Lions selection is becoming ever tougher and more relevant. Here, I select a team I think (hope) Warren Gatland would take to face off the number one side in the world as well as a handful of SR Unlocked franchises.
After a hiding in Ireland in the ANC, Wyn Jones’ scrummaging improved week-on-week in this year’s tournament. His ball-carrying was destructive and was as influential as Ken Owens and Toby Faletau in insuring this Welsh pack would not be dominated like last year’s.
Rory Sutherland continued his meteoric return to rugby with a masterclass display of smashing the English and French scrums in London and Paris respectively. He is definitely the strongest scrummager in the North and will be needed massively against the Guru Bok linchpins and scrum time.
Now the third and final loosie is hard to pick – Mako Vunipola got a job done on him in the scrum against Ireland and Scotland while Ellis Genge has not performed to his high standards. Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne helped forge Ireland’s scrum as the best in the world after the Springboks.
But given Mako was a 2017 tourist, he has enough credit in the bank for a trip to sunny South Africa.
Final selections: Wyn Jones, Rory Sutherland, Mako Vunipola
Ken Owens’ return to Wayne Pivac’s side yielded another fearsome ball carrier – his performances were consistently excellent up front and a standout brace against Italy showed his dynamism.
Luke Cowan-Dickie finally broke into England’s starting XV and put in a monster performance against France and had a tight line out until facing Ireland. His Exeter success alone gets him on the plane.
Jamie George, who unfortunately has to cope with a lack of game time due to Saracens’ situations, means he has not had many opportunities to shine. However, like many other players, he has enough of a good reputation to tour.
Final selections: Ken Owens, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jamie George
I said it before, Ireland have a phenomenal set-piece and one which is only inferior to South Africa’s. This is down to Paul O’Connell, who has been a breath of fresh air to Andy Farrell’s men. Given how solid Kyle Sinckler was against Italy and Wales, he undoubtedly makes the tour.
He is joined by two Irishmen – Andy Porter (who made sure Tadhg Furlong was not missed) and Tadhg Furlong himself, who won a battle against Sinckler in their big win over England. Had Zander Fagerson’s red card not happened against Wales, it is quite possible he would be on this tour.
Final selection: Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler and Andrew Porter
Alun Wyn Jones as captain was a no brainer for this tour given how outstanding his form has been, let alone the relationship he has with Gatland.
Maro Itoje’s starting jersey is definitely under more scrutiny, but also a guaranteed tourist – his penalising tendencies need to be ironed out before the series.
Next, a trio of Irish beef join. Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne (who like Itoje and Henderson are picked for their versatility) have been simply awesome.
James Ryan is also clearly a better player under POC and so he joins a stock of hugely talented locks to face South Africa’s giants.
Final selections: AWJ, Maro Itoje, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne
Perhaps the most competitive spot for the Lions. Tom Curry and Josh Navidi have been consistently the best flankers throughout the Six Nations and deservedly make the team.
CJ Stander and Toby Faletau are the necessary big ball carriers needed to cover 8.
Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill, Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie are selected as part of a bumper-sized back row needed to tackle the Boks at ruck time.
Final selection: Tom Curry, Josh Navidi, CJ, Stander, Toby Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill, Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie
Unlike the back row, this is a curious group to select from with no player having shone. Ben Youngs has a bit more intent but is still prone to some awful passes and kicks.
Given how convincingly Ireland, Scotland and Wales dispatched England, it is fitting to pick Ali Price, Connor Murray and Tomos Williams for the tour – Gareth Davies improved throughout the tournament but was always error-prone, which leads to his omission.
Final selection: Conor Murray, Tomos Williams, Ali Price
Again, no one really put their hand up for this spot. Owen Farrell took two-and-a-half games to finally show some attacking intent. He will definitely go on reputation and ability to cover 12, but his starting spot is questioned.
Johnny Sexton in my eyes looked excellent at times and had some vintage performances against Scotland and England. But he’s 35 – perhaps a squad role may be more fitting for a back end of a legendary career he has had.
Dan Biggar had a solid 50 minute-a game appearance before being subbed off for the more exciting Callum Sheedy, who gets better each time he’s on the pitch.
I would love to see Finn Russell go, but given he has a yellow and red card against his name combined with a few horrendous kicking mistake, it is absurd to think Gats won’t forget them.
Final selections: Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar, Callum Sheedy
Robbie Henshaw staked his claim to be the best centre in the game right now. And rightly so he should be discussed as one of the best in the business. He’s the starting 12 without a doubt and is joined by compatriot Garry Ringrose, who made some great defensive reads and athletic line breaks.
George North never looked out of touch at 13 and his versatility and big body should be utilised effectively by Gats.
Jonathan Davies caps up a wealth of experience and commitment to add to his previous two Lions tours. Celtic galore in the midfield.
Joining them is Henry Slade, who was the spark behind unleashing England’s back three against Italy, Wales and France where their attack looked very sharp. His ability to play 10, 12, 13 and cover 15 ensures him as the utility back.
Final selection: Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, George North, Jonathan Davies, Henry Slade
Wales, however jammy people (I) think they were, were the most clinical team by far – they spent the shortest time in opposition 22s but still scored the most tries/points. This is down to the wolfhound instincts of Liam Williams, Josh Adams and Tiktok sensation Louis Rees-Zammit, who have some serious pace to burn.
Anthony Watson was one of England’s only respectable performers but is highly rated by Gatland.
Stuart Hogg was brilliant as ever and without the captaincy burden he will excel on the hard pitches of Africa.
Hugo Keenan was Mr Reliable under the high ball – he looked so comfortable under the pill and is like a Tom Banks with more attacking instinct.
The bolter in the team is Duhan van der Merwe. five tries in his debut season and minimal defensive errors see him earn a spot due to fantastic performance. His tries against Italy shot any chance of a late Garbisi flourish and against France and England away, he scored three important match-winning tries. At 193 cm and 100-plus kg, he draws in and always beats at least two defenders and will be a nightmare to defend against on harder grounds.
I would love to see a baptism by fire on his return to South African shores.
Final selection: Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit, DVDM, Anthony Watson, Hugo Keenan, Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams
1. Wyn Jones
2. Ken Owens
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Maro Itoje
5. Alun Wyn Jones (c)
6. Tadhg Beirne
7. Tom Curry
8. Toby Faletau
9. Conor Murray
10. Owen Farrell
11. Louis Rees-Zammit
12. Robbie Henshaw
13. Jonathan Davies
14. Liam Williams/Anthony Watson
15. Stuart Hogg
16. Luke Cowan-Dickie
17. Rory Sutherland
18. Kyle Sinckler
19. Iain Henderson/James Ryan
20. CJ Stander/Josh Navidi
21. Ali Price
22. Henry Slade
23. Callum Sheedy/Josh Adams/Duhan van der Merwe