Lions Watch – who shone in Week one
The British and Irish Lions coach will have enjoyed what he saw at times over the opening weekend of the Six Nations, but some players will have also slipped down the pecking order ahead of the summer tour of New Zealand.
On the up
If Hogg is not the starting Lions full-back then something will have gone seriously wrong. The Scottish flier is a match-winner and was far too hot for Ireland’s defence at Murrayfield. His running lines are terrific and even his white-line fever is starting to come under control. He adds so much to a back-line that he’s a must for the Lions – even though the excellent Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny are in the mix.
Hogg touches down for Scotland
Four years ago North was a shoe-in for one of the wing spots, but now he really shouldn't make the cut. However, Gatland trusts him and that could well give him the nudge over more deserving wide men, especially if he produces the odd eye-catching moment during the Six Nations. His display against Italy wasn't vintage North, but his try may still have been enough to catch the eye of the Lions chief.
The Lions need an attacking fly-half who takes the ball flat, and the Scottish No. 10 showed that he’s a viable option for such a role. Jonny Sexton is still probably the front-runner for the starting spot, but at least three fly-halves will go on tour, maybe even four if Owen Farrell is taken as an option at 12, so Russell’s display against Ireland should mean a big tick next to his name.
The Gray Brothers
Gatland’s options in the second row are pretty phenomenal, but even so it would be disappointing if both Jonny and Richie Gray don’t make the cut. Their work-rate is astonishing, defensively they are more than solid, and they offer very reliable line-out options. Competition for starting spots is going to be fierce, but the midweek challenge is going to be almost as strong for the Lions, so depth of quality in such a pivotal position will be key. Both brothers did themselves no harm with their dominant displays against the Irish.
Twenty minutes was all it took for James Haskell to show his importance to the England team. In that cameo the flanker showed more destructive ball-carrying ability than any other Lions hopeful over the course of the weekend. He’s developing into a useful leadership figure in the England squad and has worked hard on his turnover game, making him a decent option in the back row unit for the Lions. Will he start a test – probably not. But he offers impact and real quality for the midweek XVs.
The Irish tighthead can hardly be called a bolter, but his rise from international unknown to the favourite for a Lions starting spot has been pretty sensational. As part of an impressive Ireland front row he dominated a powerful Scottish opposition trio, setting up a platform that kept Ireland in contention when they should have been dead and buried. Phenomenal at scrum time, powerful in the loose, Tadhg has Lions quality written all over him.
On the slide
The Welsh fly-half simply plays too deep and kicks the ball too often to be a viable pick for the Lions. He’s a talent and Gatland may go with him as a tried-and-trusted option, but Biggar should be well down the pecking order for the No. 10 jersey unless he shows at international level that he’s capable of stepping flatter and bringing his backs into the game more. Hopefully his injury isn’t too serious, as he’ll need plenty of opportunities to show that level of improvement.
Ireland’s big ball carrying back-row forward is a very Gatland sort of player. But his direct style was easily soaked up by the Scottish defence, which will have been noted by the All Blacks coaching staff. For the Lions to do something special this summer they are going to need their big carriers to be capable of regularly offloading out of the tackle, which Stander didn’t show against the Scots.
Taken off after 50 minutes following a sub-par display, the England skipper did little to suggest that he’s a starting option for the Lions. Trumped by Jamie George again in the white and red of England, he’s going to have to get back to his best to convince the Lions selectors that he’s a risk worth taking.
The back row options available to the Lions are pretty sensational, so Wood needed a special Six Nations to put his name in the hat. An ineffectual performance against France was not enough. If Gatland wants a solid all-rounder then he’ll likely go for a fit Chris Robshaw, not Wood.
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