Lions Stock Check – 14th Feb

Dan Biggar

Round Two is over. The break week is upon us. What are we to do? In the meantime, here’s how the weekend’s events have affected people’s Lions chances.

GOING UP

Jack Nowell
Green arrowOh how I love this scurrying Cornishman. Several important defensive interventions highlighted Nowell’s game in Cardiff, but they needn’t have. His willingness to look for work made him joint third in carries (behind Joe Launchbury and Nathan Hughes on 18 and 22 respectively). He was second only to Hughes in metres made with 62, and this willingness to run and ability to make the gain line takes pressure off an English pack missing several big ball carriers. Whilst he’s not the fastest international wing, he is solid in defence and under the high ball, as well as having been in a try scoring purple patch of late. If Gatland is after a big, strong ball carrying winger (and this is the man who started Cuthbert both for Wales and the Lions) then Nowell is one man to look at.

C.J. Stander
Green arrowStander’s hat trick against an admittedly awful Italy side highlights his form of late. Whilst the stats are probably misleading because of the nature of the opposition, as the old adage goes ‘you can only play what’s in front of you’. Play he did; Stander made 73 metres, two clean breaks and beat 11 defenders. Yep, 11. To put that into context, the whole of the Italy team only beat 10 defenders. A few weeks ago I wrote that I thought Itoje would be the Lions starting 6, and like a lot of people I thought the back row experiment would go better than it has. I am ready to recant. If I was Gatland, Stander should be wearing the Lions red on Saturdays this summer.

Dan Biggar
Green arrowIn what some have been calling one of the best Six Nations games ever, Dan Biggar stood up, once again, to be counted. After a lacklustre performance last week against Italy, Biggar played out of his skin. He made two clean breaks, and 14 tackles, (to be candid, he also missed four. But I think he still had a good game), and probably his most memorable moment was an interception to stop a certain try under the posts. Whilst I can’t see him making the test team, he could be a midweek player. This performance alone won’t be enough, but a few more games like this might be enough to see him onto the Lions plane, and may also keep Sam Davies from snapping so closely at his heels.

GOING DOWN

Scotland’s Props
Red arrowDespite my previously noted lack of any knowledge whatsoever with regards to front rows, I can tell you with a reasonable amount of certainty that the Scottish front row is not very good at scrummaging. For two weeks in a row, they have been going all directions but forwards. Whilst there have been some brighter spots (the scrum holding up in big spots during the Ireland game) they have struggled against both the Irish and especially against the French. Without WP Nel this is perhaps not a surprise, but it seems to me unlikely that any of the Scotland props will be making the trip to New Zealand. The only scenario in which I can see one of them going is if Gatland values Fagerson’s ability to play a full 80 on his mid-week team. This would be an interesting and bold selection (Fagerson is only 21), but unless it is Fagerson I cannot see the Scottish props attracting Gatland’s interest in any meaningful way until Nel returns from his neck injury.

Greig Laidlaw
Red arrowWill Laidlaw’s injury in the 23rd minute keep him out of contention for the Lions tour? Probably not. He’s got the best part of two weeks to return for Scotlands next game, but as of yet, nobody seems sure of the full extent of his injury. During and after the game the moon boot and crutches definitely didn’t make it look good. What might hurt his chances more than the injury is the performance of the Championships other nines. Rhys Webb had a great game for Wales (despite the irritating habit of back-chatting), Connor Murray did nothing in the Italy game to change our view of him and Ali Price played well in a big game for a second cap (despite one moment of madness). Whilst he probably wasn’t going to be the test starter, if picked I could see Laidlaw playing a similar role on the 2017 Lions to Dawson’s role on the 2001 Lions, a goal kicking scrum-half and leader of the midweek team (although probably minus the boat rocking newspaper column).

Who caught your eye at the weekend?

By Angus Williams

53 thoughts on “Lions Stock Check – 14th Feb

  1. What more does Joe Launchbury have to do to claim a place in your Lions top team? 18 carries, 20 tackles, a prodigious work rate and a real awareness of exactly where he needed to be at all times. He and Lawes kept England in the game on Saturday.The best second row in Europe at present.

    1. Launchbury definitely worthy of a place in this article. And Lawes, and Daly, and Moriarty, and Warburton – lots to mention, and this is designed to start the discussion.

      Interesting hearing people speak of Biggar as a Test Match Animal, and he’s forced his way into the reckoning – competition at 10 is pretty tight between Farrell, Ford, Russell, Biggar, Sexton, and the Irishman could lose out if he’s still struggling for fitness.

      1. I disagree about Biggar.
        Yes he had a good game on Saturday with some individual moments of brilliance but Wales backline never got moving despite some excellent turnover ball to work with and most of that is due to Biggars inability to distribute quickly. With a blitz defence Wales never seem to manage to get the ball past 12 with Biggar on the pitch so despite his individual contributions he brought the overall performance of the Welsh team down.

        1. Totally agree Leon. Despite the quality of play from the Welsh forwards and in particular their back row securing fast ball, Biggar never looked like he would set the Welsh backs free

          It is telling that the only try from Wales came from a move that missed him out altogether.

          1. Completely agree with this. I’ve read a lot of hyperbole about Biggar over the past few days and I’m struggling to see why. The welsh back row dominated for a good 30 minute period and Webb was giving him quick ball. Biggar failed and failed again to put his backs in any spaces. A couple of good tackles and an interception surely can’t mask that? Well, it seems for some it can.

            If he is above any of ford, Farrell, sexton, Jackson or Russell then I’d me amazed.

            1. It amazed me how many people were claiming he ‘outplayed’ Ford. He has never shown much creativity with ball in hand, always distributing to the 2nd receiver, often well behind the gainline.

              No variety in his passing, no deception. I cant see how he is being held in the same regard as Ford or Farrell.

              And yet its on the back of these “performances” that Gatland will justify taking him on tour.

        2. Agreed.
          Biggar is not a Lions fly half. As you say he doesn’t set his backs free unlike Ford, Farrell or Sexton. If picked he would also require someone to pick up the kicking duties – a second reason not to pick him whereas Farrell and Sexton fulfill both those duties – a kind of two in one! He is also short on pace (the race with Daly when he felt obliged to kick ahead a case in point)

    2. And it’s only our second choice partnership…
      Would anybody complain if Gatland took AWJ, Lawesbury and Krutoje to NZ? Johnny Gray might feel hard done by but I just don’t think he beats any of those five, definitely next in line though. I know Kruis is injured but he was probably the best set piece forward in Europe throughout 2016.

      1. Personally I think J Gray might edge out Lawes. A month ago I was expecting Henderson to put his hand up too, but I think he’s been dropped.

        I also have to agree about Biggar.. so he had one good game in defense and made an interception – how can that be good enough for the Lions? Behind a dominant pack Ford, Russel and Jackson are far more creative – and if the pack isn’t dominant, Farrell and Sexton offer better control.

  2. I think peeps need to give Itoje a bit of time to adjust to playing at 6. He is too good not to master it. His natural position is lock though and I would still have him as one of my 1st choice locks for the Lions tour.

    I agree Stander is looking really good and could stop Robshaw’s chance of playing 6 on the lions. Though if fit I would take them both.

    I think Daly will go as bench cover as he provides options in most of the back positions off the bench. Plus with that 50+ metre boot could win games at the death.

    I think Wales back row looked excellent and If Moriarty continues to play like he is, then he may well also get on the plane. Faletau and Vunipola better get fit and firing or he may steal their thunder.

    All in all I think we could have the best Lions team to tour in a long time, as we have strength in depth in every area. Certainly much better team, than when we last toured NZ.

    1. Agreed there are some really good players putting their hands up but half of them will be completely knackered after a ludicrously long domestic season. I think the final games are the day before they leave? I am also not convinced that Gatland is the man to make the best of them.

    2. Itoje is talented, but unfortunate in being one of those ‘in between’ players. Not quite physical enough (yet) for 2nd row, but too upright and lanky for 6. He’ll gt there, possibly as an 8 in the end.

  3. Whilst I am still 100%sure he will tour I think Alan Wyn Jones should feature as going down. Before the weekend I had him down as the favorite to captain the Lions, however after some poor decision making I think Rory Best is now the only option for the job

      1. Though ther than potentially Launchbury (or a wildcard like, I dunno, Farrell or Stander), I don’t think any of the potential Lion captain’s are the best in their position. I certainly wouldn’t be starting AW Jones or Hartley, for example.

  4. I thought Russell did a pretty good job of playing himself out of contention, whilst Strauss was great for second week running (having done better than both Stander and Heaslip in Ireland) as was Dunbar. Launchbury was really rather handy, though I’d not call him the best lock in Europe, and Liam Williams can’t have done his chances any harm. Probably best not to comment on the Irish performance given how completely Italy capitulated.

  5. So ONCE again here is the framework. Selection starts from these three questions: “What weakness do the All Blacks possess?” (hate playing against highly confrontational front 5’s), “Do we win by attrition, or by scoring tries?” (since RWC definitely the latter), and lastly, “Which players are most capable of delivering, in a short amount of time against these parameters?” (the players who are winning games in the last twenty minutes and under exceptional pressure).

    Based on these few facts alone then, I wouldn’t have any of the Welsh spine anywhere nr the test team…..The only two teams in NH rugby CONSISTENTLY delivering the ability to play at increased tempo in the last twenty minutes, and who can provide the sheer thuggery needed to be disruptive are England and Ireland. Wales proved last week (and by proxy) their decision makers can’t close out games in high pressure scenarios. The Lions is never about the best player in the position, but the best composition of players for the goal and style. Did anyone else find POC’s comment about “it (gatball) only took two days to learn” in relation to the last tour funny?

    1. I think you’ve nailed it. It’s about the game plan to beat NZ not a game of 6N top trumps. I do worry that Gatland doesn’t know what that game plan is and will go with the Welshmen he knows picking AWJ as Captain. That said I thought a number of Welsh players stood up for selection: Webb, Tipuric, Warburton, JD (one bad call aside) and L Williams. I wonder how he will bring together some of the key combinations so whilst I think he’ll mix it up in the pack (how about a back row of Stander, Vunipola and Tipuric?) I think he’ll select Murray and Sexton together possibly with Farrell and J Davies. Also let’s not forget the depth he’ll have on the bench.

  6. Think we can add Finn Russell into the going down category

    Also Maro Itoje if he doesn’t get played at lock. There are too many good flankers for him to be chosen there.

    In the going up and not already mentioned – Marler, Te’o, George, Haskell, Dunbar, Maitland, Owens, Ball, Warburton, Tipuric

  7. At the moment I think there is good competition in almost every position, but mostly at lock and back row. I just hope this doesn’t give Gatland too much to choose from and he goes for the familiar option.

    Whilst Warburton and Tipuric are in good form I think Stander, O’Brien, Watson and even Robshaw and Moriarty are more consistent when fit. Add Haskell into the mix and that is a lot of potentials to fill 4 spaces on the plane (assuming he takes 4 flankers?).

    I think you could take any combination of the locks from any home nation as that is the most competitive position. England are playing with Lawes and Launchbury and working well, but Kruis and Itoje were arguably the best partnership in the NH last season. If both are fit come tour time will Gats be tempted to take them as his first choice second row?

    I think Gats really has his work cut out for him selecting this Lions team. No wonder he’s had a sabbatical!!

    1. Quite. And I think you could quite happily claim that Itoje and Kruis were the second best lock partnership in the world last year and only just behind Retaliick and Whitelock.

      You mention Robshaw. In a way, his absence, for me at least, makes his stock rise still higher. It is clear that England miss the sheer amount of effective, timely work that he does on the flank. They look far more unbalanced and much less effective at the breakdown both in attack and defence without him

      Watching Ireland v Scotland the other week, an Irish friend mentioned that for all the good play of O’Brien and Stander, what Ireland really needed was a Robshaw type to cement it all together – a role that O’Mahoney often plays for Ireland.

      Robshaw really does not deserve to miss out on a Lions tour and I hope Gatland realises just how crucial a player he has been in England’s run of success.

  8. Who do you think should be captain whoever it is they need to warrant test team selection. Is AWJ one the best 2 2nd rows Warburton is not the best 7 in Wales Hartley not in the top 3 in England and despite Rory Bests many attributes he is nowhere near good enough to command a Lions test start. At he moment if all fit I think Furlong Itoje Stander Farrell and Hogg are nailed on but that’s only 5players. eg O,Brien or Tuperic @7 Vunipola or Feleteau @ etc. Your opinions please

  9. The idea that C J Stander should play for the Lions is a nonsense. It is bad enough seeing SH mercs like him in the 6n. Playing for the Lions??? It is almost as bad as Rick Fluckey playing against the Lions in 2005 on the NZ disaster tour and playing for them in 2009 against SA.

    Stander was living in SA until 2012. He was born there, went to school there and went to university there. His parents as SA so when did he ever express a desire to play in the 6n or seek Lions selection pre-2015.

    This ‘international player asylum seeker merry-go-round’ makes the sport an utter a joke.

  10. YDRAIG You made your point well but that is a different issue you obviously know your rugby as it stands who do you think should be Lions Captain

  11. Thanks Scrappy. I do want to be clear. I wouldn’t have any of the critical decision makers from Wales nr the test team (9,10,2 or 8 (yert) – see how Talepau gets back from his injury) because they fail to make good choices when it counts. The test series last summer is further evidence of this. I would have Tips, Warburton, Williams L, nr the test team. I want my cool heads to be the clearest thinkers and that is why I would go Best, Murray, Farrell (as much as I love Ford) and Vunipola at 8. He is the 1 player the AB’s I think would be genuinely scared of, and I anticipate better for the injury break. The rest of the selection then becomes top trumps.

  12. Is it just me confused about Itoje? I agree he looks far less effective, I just can’t work out why. I know, I know he’s wearing 6. But he’s packing down in the row on our own ball still (Lawes was at 6 on those occassions). So outside of that, surely there shouldn’t be any difference? Why is Itoje making less impact at the breakdown, in the tackle area and with ball in hand?

    I don’t think we can put it down to position. Potentially it is simply the balance of the pack isn’t quite right with Robshaw missing and Itoje is the most sensible target because of that?

    1. I think you’re spot on Jacob. It was perfectly balanced with Itoje & Kruis (or Luanchbury), Robshaw and Billy. With only Itoje and Launchbury but no Robshaw and Billy, the balance has tipped. I think Haskell could make a big difference to that, but do you play Haskell at 6 with Clifford at 7 and Itoje in the second row, or do you keep Itoje at 6 (for Italy game at least) and start Haskell at 7 with Clifford on the bench?

      1. Personally I’d just bring in Haskell for Clifford. If we were to drop one of the locks to find a better balance then I can’t see it being Itoje, and I believe Lawes calls the line out. So Launchbury goes? Well that’d be harsh.

        @ Leon – what specific instances is that happening? I can’t see how. He isn’t packing down at 6. He’s at the back of the line out instead of the middle. Other than that, the role of a flanker against a lock is no different in test rugby surely?

        1. Within your pack you need players that are going to
          clear rucks (Attack)
          compete for/slow the ball (Defence)
          make carries (Attack)
          make tackles (Defence)
          Generally speaking the role of 6 has a different balance (more focused on the last 2) to that of a lock and the ask from EJ would have been different

          1. also Locks will commit to or position closer to the ruck in the guard position while backrow are more likely to filter out to support the backline in the wider channels

            1. That’s why my comment mentioned mainly balance within the pack as the issue. Itoje packed down at lock, so what makes you think EJs instructions round the park were so different?

              I can’t imagine for a second that defensive positioning between Lawes and Itoje needs to be filtered by the number on their shirts. Even assuming the above is correct, both Launchbury and Lawes are both making a hell of a lot more tackles and carrying more than Itoje. So I keep coming back round to the fact – is the number of Itoje’s back relevant to his form?

              I should say, that form is fairly average as opposed to the spectacular form we saw last year.

                1. Really interesting piece. Makes a bit more sense now. I still feel as though he is a bit out of form despite the number on his back.

        1. But what? He has been in tremendous form since coming back from a nasty injury. He carries well, tackles, keeps going for eighty minutes, is effective over the ball and has excellent hands and spatial awareness. He is also a good leader and a possible future captain. What more do you want? And no, I’m not a Wasps supporter.

          1. Precisely.
            Give the lad a break. He’s practically out of nappies and has won everything on offer to him in rugby so far with club and country. He’s playing out of position AND doing it at INTERNATIONAL level to boot whilst making a pretty good fist of it. The reason he got MOTM last 6N and ‘exploded’ onto the international scene was also partly because he was partnered with Kruis who i understand he is mates with. He misses his best bud and formidable lock partner! Simple!
            Whose fit to mark him down on this forum. Anyone that’s played for their country?

            1. Think you may have got the wrong end of the stick here Alex. I was referring to the Danish boxer’s comment on Launchbury. Agree with you about Itoje though. Just needs a bit of breathing space and somewhat less media hype.

              1. Andy

                I was agreeing with you Lock stock and smoking barrel Andy.
                Hence my comment began with the choice word: “precisely!”
                I then went on a bit of a ramble about Itoje though…ha ha!

  13. As England at this time don’t have an out and out 6, and with the exception of Sander, nor do the other three, could we see for the first time a British Lion being capped before he gets his international cap. Thomas Young would walk into any of the other three sides at six or seven, shame he’s Welsh. For me at this time he would be one of only four certs for the plane trip to NZ

    1. Sorry are you saying Robshaw and Sander are not good enough for the lions both are streets ahead of Young.
      Warburton, Moriarty or Barclay at 6 are also an option

      1. Young’s time may come internationally, but currently here is a list of players I would select ahead of him at 6, by country

        Robshaw
        Itoje
        Wood
        Hughes
        Armand (who I rate quite highly)
        Warburton
        Moriarty
        Strauss
        Barclay
        Stander
        Henderson
        O’Brien
        O’Mahoney

        And they’re just the ones I can think of, I may have missed some.

        1. I have clearly stated that Sander is Good enough to be on the plane. Robshaw is injured and unlikely to make the trip. Itoje is not a six and I really hope that EJ stops trying to make him one, ruined Lawes. O’Brien and Warbuton are out and out 7’s. Hughes, Moriarty and Strauss (now out) are 8’s. So I will stand by my discussion point, Youngs gets a ticket to NZ

    2. Maybe Sam Underhill as a non cap recipient could just “walk it” as you say into a Lions flanker position and he’s english though he has played for the past two years in Wales and he may have loved Wales and the welsh whilst he was there (despite being english)! You never know!

      1. Great shout if he gets enough game time to impress, would love to see him and Youngs together in a Lions Jersey.

  14. Given that there seems to be a general consensus that neither Hartley or Best are good enough, has Richard Hibberd served enough penance to be an outside bet? Still one of the best around imv and certainly well ahead of Hartley.

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