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The Lions’ biggest selection problem as Warren Gatland must omit outstanding stars

There have been suggestions Warren Gatland may name just six back rowers in his Lions squad to face South Africa this summer.

Best of luck with that.

There is arguably no more hotly contested area when it comes to selection for the proposed games with the world champions.

Who to leave out? Every country has players with strong claims. Such is the competition we’ve omitted from this list players of the quality of Aaron Wainwright, Ellis Jenkins, Ross Moriarty, Mark Wilson, Courtney Lawes, Ben Earl, Caelan Doris, Will Connors, Jack Conan, Rhys Ruddock and Matt Fagerson.

Gatland picked seven back rowers to tour Australia with the Lions in 2013 and eight for the trip to New Zealand in 2017. Let’s say in these Covid-hit times he opts for seven again this time. There’ll still be some brutally tough calls to make.

We’ve taken a look at the main candidates, whether they’re on the Test scene right now or not.

Josh Navidi

Let’s start by counting this guy in.

Anyone who attended Gatland’s media briefing ahead of the 2018 autumn series would have learned how much he rates the dreadlocked one.

He likes his selflessness, his toughness and his willingness to go the extra mile for the team.

Right now, it’s looking good for Navidi.

Justin Tipuric

Outsiders don’t always give him the plaudits he deserves.

But he not only piles up tackles — no-one has put in more in this championship — he misses them as frequently as this world is paid a visit from Halley’s Comet.

He has the most complete game of any flanker in the tournament — and that includes England’s Tom Curry, who stands out with his carrying but has missed one in six tackles he’s attempted in this Six Nations while Tipuric has missed one in 75.

The Welshman has also yet to concede a penalty, has snaffled three turnovers and a possession rip in the tackle, passed the ball 30 times, made 87 metres with ball in hand and taken nine line-outs plus a steal.

We are talking top drawer.

Taulupe Faletau



Taulupe Faletau scores against Italy

He’s been close to his very best in this tournament with his awareness, industry and multi-skilled game.

Statistics can be used to prove anything, but, still, let’s have a look at one or two. Faletau is averaging 5.92 metres a carry. Billy Vunipola averages 5.70 metres a run, with CJ Stander making 4.89 metres every time he takes the ball forward and Matt Fagerson 4.29 metres.

Faletau has put in 60 tackles, Vunipola 26 and Stander 37. Playing a game fewer, Fagerson has nailed 24 opponents.

But figures alone will never do full justice to what the Wales No. 8 offers.

When Wales are stretched, he’s invariably on hand to come up with a tackle; when they need someone to offer them go-forward he is their go-to individual.

He’s someone who’d enhance any side in world rugby, and Gatland rates him.

He’ll play in the Tests.

Sam Underhill

If he tours it’ll be on reputation or club form because he hasn’t played Test rugby this year.

But if he’s anywhere near his best — and the assumption is Gatland will have watched him already or in the coming weeks — he’s in with a shout because he’s a beast of a player.

Tom Curry

Underhill’s fellow Kamikaze Kid is strongly fancied to be part of Gatland’s group after his efforts at the last World Cup and his ongoing form with England.

He’s another physical player. He’s come up with six dominant hits in this Six Nations and likes nothing more than to charge forward with ball in hand.

His ability to play across the back row is a further string to his bow.

Sam Simmonds

Not good enough for Eddie Jones, but good enough for the Lions?

Potentially.

Gatland has already said players don’t have to be playing Test rugby to figure in his squad, but the assumption is the Kiwi would prefer it if they were.

Exeter Chiefs No. 8 Simmonds is an exciting player, though, with the pace of a back and an appetite for tries. He has a touch of X-factor about him and offers something different.

Left-field, then, and he hasn’t been helped by lack of opportunities to prove himself at the highest level.

But don’t rule him out.

Billy Vunipola



Billy Vunipola during an England training session

Called himself ‘rubbish’ and a ‘coward’ after a few ordinary displays earlier in this championship.

Where’s Mr Motivator when you need him most?

Anyway, Vunipola has regrouped and he’s been carrying strongly since, without getting pats on the back from everyone.

He brings go-forward and makes the hard yards.

Gatland won’t be averse to what he offers.

Jamie Ritchie

The 6ft 4in, 17st Edinburgh blindside is certain to figure in deliberations.

An injury checked the impact he was making in this Six Nations.

But he’s good over the ball and physical with his tackling.

A good display against France, whenever such a game is played, would help his cause no end.

Hamish Watson

Here’s another guy who is putting together a strong case for inclusion.

He has an all-round game with his ability to achieve turnovers, pinball off opponents when carrying and nail opposition attackers.

Like Tipuric, he doesn’t miss much in defence. In fact, no-one has passed him in this tournament, with the Scot completing all 39 of his tackle attempts.

He looked the part in front of Warren Gatland against Ireland, too.

In a perfect world, Scotland would be winning more, though.



Hamish Watson of Scotland hands off Ryan Elias of Wales

Peter O’Mahony

He’s a useful sort to have in the trenches, though his discipline couldn’t be guaranteed. He’s been sent off twice this season, first after receiving two yellow cards against the Scarlets, second after clouting Tomas Francis with a forearm to the face at a ruck. Is it the Welsh he has an aversion to? Or does he need a refresher course on rugby rules? Or does he just find it hard to control himself in the heat of battle?

Whatever, the Munster man with a hard edge has left himself with much to do to make Gatland’s squad.

Tadhg Beirne

He’s having a stormer of a championship and will be there or thereabouts for the player-of-the-tournament shortlist.

If he doesn’t exactly rack up the tackles, it’s usually because he’s the one doing the carrying, and he is a master pilferer of opposition possession.

The likelihood is he’ll be in Gatland’s group, either as a back rower or as a utility forward.

CJ Stander



CJ Stander has a persuasive case for being part of the 2021 Lions

His big selling point is the amount of ball he carries.

He’s averaging 16 runs a game in this Six Nations and he does cross the gain-line.

The Munster player is also strong over the ball.

Assuming he’s available after his shock decision to retire at “the end of the mid-year Test window”, he should win a place in Gatland’s squad.

Experience picked up with the Lions in 2017 will stand him in good stead, as will his versatility: he can play at blindside as well as No. 8.

A persuasive package, then.

Verdict

If Gatland names seven back rowers, then Josh Navidi, CJ Stander, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau and Billy Vunipola are best-placed to be involved.

Tadhg Beirne can also expect a summons, in his case as a utility forward, covering back row and second row.

Picking Underhill, who hasn’t featured at all in this Six Nations because of injuries, would be something of a leap of faith, but Gatland will remember the England player’s performance against the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, when his dominant hits helped knock the stuffing out of Steve Hansen’s team.

It would be harsh on Hamish Watson, who might yet find a route into the squad, but Gatland isn’t big on loading his panel with too many players from losing teams and successive home defeats to Wales and Ireland could affect the claims of a number of Scottish players.

Nothing is settled yet, though.

There is still time for Gatland to be persuaded.

But not much time.

...

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