Lions Selection Tracker- BACKS (Halfway edition)
We have now passed the halfway point of the 2021 Six Nations (for most teams at least), and as is always the case in Lions tour seasons, most of the debate during the tournament is surrounding which players ought to be on the plane in the summer. While local bias plays a role in many selections, I’ll do my best to avoid this and present as balanced a picture as possible.
If Warren Gatland is planning to take 6 Nations form into account as heavily as he has in the past, it’s difficult to argue for as many English players making the trip as would have been expected before the tournament began. Indeed, most pundits’ selections were predicting as many as 10 English starters only a few months ago. However, the dramatic demise of Saracens combined with lacklustre performances by England against both Scotland and Wales leaves many Englishmen needing an upturn in form to make the squad. Wales have been the surprise package in the tournament so far, winning the Triple Crown with three underdog victories from three matches so far. Scotland and Ireland have had mixed tournaments so far, with plenty of impressive performers staking claims for selection. Could it be that we will finally see a Lions squad with relatively equal numbers from each of the four nations?
Detailed below are the selections for the back line, the forwards selections can be found HERE: https://www.anotherscottishsportsfan.co.uk/post/lions-selection-tracker-forwards-halfway-edition
It is likely that three scrum halves will be selected in the squad, although at this point there are no obvious choices who have separated themselves from the rest. Ben Youngs has had a strong tournament in a poor English side and is likely to be picked given his Lions experience. Ali Price is the only other option at scrum half who is a guaranteed starter for his country, and his overall play in 2021 has many mentioning him as a surprise selection. Gareth Davies remains an explosive option at nine, although Tomos Williams and Kieran Hardy are sharing time at the position for Wales which may hinder his chances. In Ireland, John Cooney has fallen away drastically following his mercurial performances at Connacht and Jamison Gibson-Park is yet to give any indication that he would be ready for a Lions tour. Conor Murray and Rhys Webb are two options with experience that Gatland has tried and trusted in the past, so they can’t be ruled out. All in all, it’s pretty much a total lottery here, and most pundits’ selections will be particularly vulnerable to bias due to the fairly consistent but uninspiring level of talent in the selection pool at scrum half.
While there may have been doubts about his consistency and temperament in the past, Finn Russell’s displays since he has come back into the Scotland fold should (this being the key word here) earn him the number 10 shirt for this tour. He is now not only the most exciting and talented stand-off available, he is also proving himself to be well suited to a more tactical style of play when needed, managing the game beautifully in Scotland’s Calcutta Cup win. Game-manager extraordinaire Johnny Sexton is having a solid tournament but is ultimately fighting Dan Biggar and George Ford for the third fly half spot behind Russell and Owen Farrell. Farrell is having a poor 6 Nations, and is now most likely going to be competing for a start in the centres, such is Russell’s high performance level. Meanwhile, Ford is playing in a system not suited to his skillset for England which will make it extremely difficult for him to effectively make his case. Callum Sheedy is being mentioned by some Welsh fans as an outside bet, but until he displaces Dan Biggar it will be difficult to make a strong case for him.
His lack of involvement in the 6 Nations should finally put the calls for Manu Tuilagi to rest. He does have talent, but hasn’t had a run of games and looked like the world class player he used to be in a long time now. His replacement in the England side Henry Slade has good kicking and handling skills but has been massively overhyped by the English media, and has been anonymous for much of England’s lacklustre start to the year. The Welsh pairing of Tompkins and Watkin struggled badly against Scotland (barring Watkin’s terrific tap tackle on Duhan van der Merwe to seal the game), but their new partnership of Jonathan Davies and George North are both likely to be selected by Gatland as long as they can remain fit. They would bring a wealth of experience to the side, and with a lack of high quality alternatives they should certainly be on the plane. The probable Test starters, however, can be found in the Irish side, in the form of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. Both have the talent and are in the prime of their careers at the moment, while they are also the most balanced options available to Gatland in terms of both attacking and defensive capabilities. It is also regularly mentioned in Lions seasons that the effectiveness of strong partnerships and units cannot be underestimated, and this pair are as effective as any. While Chris Harris is finally starting to be appreciated as a stalwart of the current Scottish side by fans, he is unlikely to be selected over the above options, particularly with Farrell and North able to play in the centres alongside Davies, Ringrose or Henshaw. However, if Gatland is looking for a solid defender and reliable carrier at 13, he could do far worse.
After watching his two incredible performances to kick off the 6 Nations this year, Warren Gatland will be hoping that he will finally have a fit Stuart Hogg available for the Lions test series. Injuries kept him out of the Test matches in the two previous tours, and he is arguably in the best form of his career at the moment. He is finally growing into his role as Scotland captain and the variety of abilities he displayed across the England and Wales games have put to rest any thoughts that Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny or Elliot Daly might beat him to the full back test spot. Williams will still provide a useful option on the wing, with the ability to cover at full back if needed as well, but he may be reduced to a spot on the bench come the test matches. This is in part due to the emergence of the mercurial Louis Rees-Zammit and Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe. Rees-Zammit effortlessly accelerating away from Johnny May was not an unbelievable or game-defining moment, but you can bet it made Warren Gatland sit up and take notice. May is now looking like he might miss out altogether due to his defensive and aerial deficiencies, leaving Anthony Watson representing their only real shot at making the squad in this position. What seems remarkable is that two years ago it would have been ridiculous to suggest that both Jacob Stockdale and Josh Adams might miss out on Lions selection, but quite simply there are currently better options available. James Lowe is now Ireland’s first choice option on the wing, and he is their only realistic chance at a Lions place for their back three options. Keith Earls and Jordan Larmour are both useful players at opposite ends of their careers, but it isn’t likely that either will be involved this time around.
The article on the forwards can be found HERE: https://www.anotherscottishsportsfan.co.uk/post/lions-selection-tracker-forwards-halfway-edition
As always, please comment with your thoughts and opinions and feel free to share with family and friends to get the debate started!