With the British and Irish Lions Tour coming up, we take a look at the players in each position we think will make a big impact in New Zealand. The tour will take the squad through ten matches, including three Test matches with the infamous All Blacks.
With their first match scheduled for June 3rd, and the heat of the Six Nations well and truly behind them, speculation is well under way as to who has impressed enough to make it into the team.
Boss Warren Gatland will soon have to confirm the 35 players he wants to take with him to give the Lions a tour worth roaring about. Here are the players we think have showed their potential and should be in contention for the team:
Cian Healy (Ireland)
The Irish wonder has earned himself a fierce reputation for being one of the most destructive ball-in-hand runners in the sport, but his career has been dogged by injury in the last 12 months. However, Healy seems to be fighting his way back to fitness and will be keen to show why he is revered as one of the best loosehead props in the world if picked for the team.
Mako Vunipola (England)
On the other end of the scale, having demonstrated stunning consistency in his form for both club and country, is Mako Vunipola. The Saracens loosehead has started every match he has played since May 2016 and is one of the most reliable players to put on the number 1 jersey. His success has been facilitated by Joe Marler's problems but Vunipola has undeniable form, including playing his part in the whitewash of Australia, and it's hard to see him being left out of the squad.
Jack McGrath (Ireland)
He’s beaten New Zealand before and is regarded as one of the top loosehead props in the northern hemisphere. His combination of power, strength and size has meant that even against a large French pack in the RBS 6 Nations, Ireland’s scrum still had the upper hand. He provides control, stability and a solid platform – three things needed if the Lions scrum is going to stand up to the All Blacks.
Ken Owens (Wales)
Having continued his impressive form at the Six Nations, Ken Owens will be keen to show that he's just coming into his prime at the age of 30. He has plenty of experience playing against the All Blacks too, having started all three previous Tests.
Rory Best (Ireland)
The Irish hooker missed two matches in the Six Nations due to illness, but his player stats ensure that he's still in contention for the Lions team. He averages nine carries a game - the best of any home nations man in his position.
Jamie George (England)
Somewhat seen as a wildcard, the modern front-row forward has pace, strength, accuracy and the ability to pop up absolutely anywhere on the pitch – usually at the right time too! He’s been pushing Hartley for England’s starting role at hooker and may be seen as the perfect impact player to bring off the bench against the All Blacks.
Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
Having earned himself a fierce reputation for his ball carrying and scrum play, Tadhg Furlong will be a firm favourite for the Lions Tour. Despite having just eight caps for his country, the 24-year-old would bring the versatility needed to break down teams in New Zealand.
Dan Cole (England)
Englishman Dan Cole has made himself a foundation of the scrum for both club and country. This will be important for the Lions as this could be a potential weak spot for any opposing team to expose. His confrontational style of play makes him a threat on the pitch and a strong option for Gatland.
Kyle Sinckler (England)
Another wildcard. His pace, strength, aggression and athleticism provide something very different in the front row. This spot would have originally gone to Scotland’s WP Nell, however Nell missed the entire RBS 6 Nations due to neck injury. Sinckler puts his name right in the hat as the perfect replacement front row to come on against tiring opposition.
Jonny Gray (Scotland)
Fresh off the back of setting a Scottish record, the Glasgow Warriors lock will be keen to continue what has been a fantastic year for him so far. His prowess for tackling will be much needed in New Zealand, and won't have passed Gatland by.
Courtney Lawes (England)
Back to his best. Lawes has relished the opportunity starting in the second row for England, carrying with vigour and tackling with the aggression and athleticism we have all come to expect. His work rate during the RBS 6 Nations along with his ability as a solid line-out option put him in contention for a seat on the plane to New Zealand.
Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
The Wales skipper continues to keep the bar raised high with unrivalled consistency throughout the RBS 6 Nations. His leadership qualities, along with his work rate in the tight and lose make him a serious contender in a position that could be the biggest selection headache for Warren Gatland.
Joe Launchbury (England)
Having provided a string of world class performances during the RBS 6 Nations, and regularly topping England’s tackling and ball carrying charts (sometimes both!), Joe Launchbury has seemingly all but secured his place on tour. Undoubtedly influential in England’s best performances, when Launchbury plays well, the forwards play well and forward dominance will be key to competing with the All Blacks in New Zealand.
Maro Itoje (England)
A diverse player, Maro Itoje will have to prove that he's worthy to take up the number 6 position in the Lions squad, but he would be a sound choice for Gatland. The 22-year-old was almost flawless during his time in the Six Nations and proved that he is an asset for any team.
CJ Stander (Ireland)
Both aggressive physically and able to guide a team, CJ Stander will be an asset to the Lions team. He's enjoyed a fantastic few seasons with club Limerick-based Munster, which has seen him become a firm first-choice flanker. These strengths will see him be a favourite for the initial touring squad, despite his lack of international experience.
Sam Warburton (Wales)
Rumours around Sam Warburton are mainly focused on whether or not he will be Captain during the New Zealand tour. His consistency and form mean it's fairly certain that he'll make it in the team.
Sean O’Brien (Ireland)
Injuries have plagued Sean O'Brien's last few seasons with his club, but his talent for barnstorming ball carrying and hard-hitting defence could see him make it onto the plane. Of course, this relies on Gatland judging that he can stay fit through the tour.
James Haskell (England)
His performances Down Under in 2016 proved that Haskell has what it takes to fill the number 7 shirt at international level. His fierce defence, unrivalled work rate and leadership on the pitch meant he singlehandedly broke down Australia’s back row during the Summer Tour – a back row which is arguably the best in the world. Not only has he proved that he has the rugby credibility, his dedication to regain his fitness, his jovial nature, and not forgetting social media ‘banter’, make him the perfect Lions tourist.
Billy Vunipola (England)
The main question surrounding Billy Vunipola's participation in the Lions squad is whether or not he'll be fit, after having been ruled out of the Six Nations. If he can get to full fitness, you can bet he'll be on the plane.
Taulupe Faletau (Wales)
Taulupe Faletau boasts a strong athletic game and will be a solid choice to take up the back of the scrum. With more than 60 caps for Wales, he would also bring a wealth of international experience to the team but will face competition from the likes of Ross Moriarty.
Conor Murray (Ireland)
By far the favourite to put on the number 9 jersey, Conor Murray will be the one to beat. His recent form, including his display in the Six Nations, has seen him hailed as the best scrum half in World Rugby.
Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)
With injury putting an abrupt end to his Six Nations tournament, the Scottish scrum-half will be hoping a Lions call-up will come his way and he'll be able to put on a good display. Laidlaw is cool under pressure, as well as talented - something that Gatland values highly.
Rhys Webb (Wales)
The Welshman has proven time and time again that he has the ability to produce that x-factor moment that not many players have. This along with his natural desire to play the game at pace as well as getting amongst it could be vital to provide impact off the bench, or to start the game at a high tempo – something which many feel is key to take on the All Blacks.
Jonny Sexton (Ireland)
Despite some time out of the game due to injury, Sexton burst back on to the scene against France. Not only did he display his sublime ability to control the game with some immense tactical kicking, he proved that he still has what it takes to take the ball to the line, commit defenders and gain meters. This combined with his wealth of international and Lions experience, many can’t see anyone else securing the 10 shirt for the 1st Test in Auckland.
Finn Russell (Scotland)
Finn Russell showed a few moments of pure magic during the Six Nations, and his display against Ireland will put him right in contention to be on the plane. He can play at centre and fly-half, which will help him become a solid option for the squad.
Dan Biggar (Wales)
A permanent fixture in the Wales side for the last three years, Biggar describes himself as a fly-half who “can steady the ship and do the basics well” as well as “bringing the best out of people around me who are a lot more talented”. To succeed on a Lions tour, you need big game players who can do the basics well, stay calm in the face of the greatest side on the planet, and take control when it matters most. Biggar has proven that his ability to pull the right strings at the right time is arguably unrivalled, this along with his dedication and abrasive nature could be invaluable in New Zealand.
Owen Farrell (England)
Another almost-certain player for the Lions Tour, Owen Farrell has consistently shown that he is a talented and level-headed Test performer at both centre and fly half, giving Gatland options.
Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)
Easily Ireland's best player in the Six Nations, Robbie Henshaw will hope his resilient contribution in both attack and defence makes him a comfortable choice for Gatland.
Jonathan Joseph (England)
The Bath centre had a good Six Nations but will feel he could have been more consistent, especially during the last game against the French. Jonathan Joseph has experience and this will be vital in Gatland's team.
Jared Payne (Ireland)
Born in New Zealand, Jared Payne has managed to gain 19 caps for Ireland and he has started for all of them. Much like other bright prospects for the Lions, his place on the plane will be largely dictated by his health and whether he can recover fully from the kidney injury he suffered against Australia.
George North (Wales)
The wing will be tough competition and a strong line for Gatland. George North's powerful play should see him be the cornerstone of the Lions team, and he'll hope that he can continue to impress in this position.
Anthony Watson (England)
With North presumed for one wing, it's a fair assumption to say Anthony Watson would take up the other, though he'll have plenty of people looking to take his place. He'll need to remain consistent and fit while displaying his signature dangerous game if he wants to make sure he's not outshone by the likes like of Liam Williams, Sean Maitland or Elliot Daly.
Sean Maitland (Scotland)
Born in New Zealand, and having experience of playing there, Maitland is an integral part of one of the best Scotland teams we’ve seen in years. His current stint at Saracens (a team notorious for their unmatched work ethic and team work), along with his relentlessly self-effacing personality, means Maitland knows that the Lions will have to work harder than ever if they are to take anything away from New Zealand. He optimises work rate, he’s physical and loves to carry the ball – all of which will need to be of the highest quality to compete with the All Blacks back three.
Liam Williams (Wales)
Having scored tries against Italy, Scotland and England in the RBS 6 Nations, Liam Williams displayed incredible talent in attack as well as a strong defence. Arguably outshining George North during the tournament, Williams has the ability to play as effectively at both wing and full-back, making him a utility back that cannot be ignored.
Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
After an outstanding display in the Six Nations - including scoring a try from full-back position - Stuart Hogg is another clear favourite for the Lions squad. Known for his diverse game, being equally able to play fly-half and centre, he would be a valuable player to have in any team and is one of Scotland's finest.
Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
Although he initially started off as a winger, Leigh Halfpenny has shown fine form in fullback. He missed any action in the 2009 tour because of recurring injuries and this continued to plague him in the 2015/16 season so he'll be hoping to prove himself in New Zealand.