By Rich Jones
Following the completion of the Six Nations, attentions of rugby supporters will now inevitably turn to the British and Irish Lions ahead of their tour of New Zealand.
The best players from England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland will head Down Under to play 10 matches, culminating in three tests against the All Blacks.
The Six Nations was the last chance of players to prove themselves to Head Coach Warren Gatland and his staff on the international stage before he picks his squad on April 19.
A squad of around 35 players is expected to make the trip, which will begin with a tour match against the New Zealand Barbarians on June 3 and end with the third test against the All Blacks in Auckland on July 8.
With this year’s Six Nations throwing up a number of surprises and eye-catching performances, competition for places on the plane certainly appears fierce.
Will Gatland opt for an English core following the success of Eddie Jones’ side?
What role will the Welsh heroes who powered the Lions’ victory in Australia four years ago play given their mixed run of form?
Does his selection matter, or are the historic All Blacks simply too strong and destined to inevitably claim victory?
Two years ago, the answer to the last question would have most likely been that New Zealand would cruise to a series success.
Their powerhouse side were en route to a rampant win in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, a tournament which saw the semi-finals filled by all Southern Hemisphere sides and featured only one British player in the team of the tournament.
Yet heading into this year’s Lions tour, New Zealand are a side still adjusting to life without star names such as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith who have all retired from international rugby.
Furthermore, there is a growing sense that the Northern Hemisphere sides are gradually making up ground on their Southern Hemisphere counterparts and collectively playing their best rugby in many years.
Ireland claimed a historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago last November whilst England are enjoying a remarkable run of form which includes three wins in Australia last year.
With Scotland also possessing their most talented side in recent history and Wales still also featuring many big names, Gatland has something of a selection headache in the best way possible.
Starting in the front row, the hooker position is perhaps one of the most interesting decisions he has to make.
Welshman Ken Owens has potentially played his way onto the plane with a tremendous Six Nations campaign. He has been mobile in open play and accurate at the line-out and fits the prototypical mould of the modern hooker.
Jamie George has showed similar traits during his cameo appearances of the bench for England, whilst starter Dylan Hartley brings a physicality at the scrum and breakdown which may be needed.
With Ireland skipper Rory Best also a popular figure, one of those names is almost certain to miss out.
In terms of form and ability, that man could be Best although his experience, having toured in 2013, could give him an edge.
Behind the front row, there are a number of players in contention at second row and some big names are destined to be left at home.
Despite playing at flanker for England this campaign, Maro Itoje is likely to slot back into the second row for the Lions and is all but certain to be involved.
His England team-mate Joe Launchbury has enjoyed a tremendous Six Nations and is a huge presence at the breakdown, whilst Alun Wyn Jones has made a similar impact for Wales.
Scottish pair Jonny and Richie Gray have both looked strong, but younger brother Jonny looks to have more Lions potential.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s Iain Henderson has not enjoyed his best Six Nations but may well be fancied due to his flexibility to also fill in on the back row if needed.
Names such as Devin Toner, Luke Charteris, George Kruis and Courtney Lawes are also sure to be mentioned in the discussion, but with the exception of Lawes none can claim to be in good form and may subsequently miss out.
The competition remains just as fierce at back row, perhaps the only position which is unlikely to be dominated by England’s Six Nations heroes.
The bruising ball carrying skills of Irishman CJ Stander will earn him a place, whilst Sam Warburton has silenced his critics with a tremendous Six Nations during which his expertise at the breakdown has been constantly evident.
Along with in-form openside Justin Tipuric, the pair have been at the forefront of Wales’ best performances and should both be given a seat on the plane.
The experience of Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip means they both have a chance, but Scottish flanker Hamish Watson and flexible Welsh back row Ross Moriarty could have played their way into the mix in recent weeks.
Ireland’s Peter O’Mahoney also put in a Man of the Match display against England, and his expertise at the breakdown may see him sneak in ahead of one of his more experienced compatriots.
At the back of the scrum, the brute force of Billy Vunipola as a ball carrier will make him almost certain to start.
He will likely be joined by Taulupe Faletau, who remains a classy technician who barely puts a foot wrong despite not being at his best since returning from injury.
Moving on to the backs, and Irish ace Conor Murray is the overwhelming favourite to start at scrum-half.
The battle to join him, however, is intriguing with Rhys Webb, Ben Youngs and Danny Care all vying for two spots alongside him.
England starter Youngs is a clever tactician who offers precision with the boot at the base of the ruck.
Care and Webb, meanwhile, are both live wires of a similar style. Webb has been in good form for Wales, but Care’s experience may give him the edge given his impact off the bench for England in the Six Nations.
The Lions took two fly-halves to Australia four years ago, and they could go for a similar approach this time around.
If they go down that route, either Jonathan Sexton or Dan Biggar will probably fill one of the spots in the game-manager role.
Both have similar styles as tacticians with good kicking. Sexton is likely to be viewed as a better option, but his injury history could count against him.
The other fly-half spot should go to someone viewed as more expansive, giving Gatland the flexibility to take different approaches if required.
Perhaps the best fly-half in the Northern Hemisphere in terms of creativity is George Ford, but his defensive capabilities remain questionable and pitting him against the exceptional Beauden Barrett would be a big risk.
As a result, his England colleague Owen Farrell would be a perfect option at 10, the position where he has continually starred for Saracens.
Breaking up the Ford-Farrell axis which has been at the heart of England’s Six Nations success may be controversial, but Farrell has proven he can bring out the best of those around him and a switch back to 10 would allow the Lions to include more talent in their midfield.
Farrell does remain an option at 12, though, and thus there is a chance an extra fly-half goes with Scotland’s Finn Russell the favourite.
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is a world class 12 and would be the obvious choice for that spot, whilst there are plenty of options at 13 with Jonathan Joseph and Jonathan Davies the obvious choices.
With the exception of one loose kick against England, Davies has enjoyed a solid run for Wales whilst Joseph was exceptional against Scotland.
Scotland’s Huw Jones looked to be a contender to join them in New Zealand having scored four tries in his first seven international matches, but an injury in their final game has unfortunately ruled him out.
On the wing, George North has shown signs of getting back to his destructive best – most notably when he scored two superb tries against Ireland.
England’s Anthony Watson is also a firm favourite to be in the squad, whilst Scotland winger Tim Visser would be extremely unfortunate to miss out.
Yet a wealth of names will be vying to join them such as Jack Nowell, Jonny May, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour.
Perhaps a big positive for Warren Gatland is the number of back three options who are equally comfortable either at full back or out wide.
Scottish talent Stuart Hogg would be the obvious choice to play at 15, but Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams and Elliot Daly would all be offer different styles should be suffer from either injury or poor form.
Williams and Daly have also earned places on merit for their exploits on the wing for Wales and England respectively, giving Gatland a great deal of flexibility amongst his stable of backs.
The knock-on effect of this may well be the notable omission of Mike Brown, but the England ace has not been at his best in recent months and there are other players more deserving of a place on the plane at present.
The final conundrum comes in the form of the captaincy; there is no standout candidate for the role and many of the candidates have potentially played their way out of the role in the Six Nations.
Bearing this in mind, there may well be a temptation to appoint an experienced, authoritative figure such as Alun Wyn Jones as a tour captain and simply hand the match day role to whoever best suits once each starting XV has been selected.
There will undoubtedly be many more twists and turns before the British and Irish Lions finally take to the field for the first test against New Zealand in Auckland on June 24.
Injuries will occur both in club rugby and in the early stages of the tour, but regardless of who eventually takes to the field the occasion is certain to be huge.
The British and Irish Lions remains one of rugby’s greatest traditions; anyone who has pulled on the famous jersey maintains it is the ultimate honour for a British player.
The challenge posed by the All Blacks is huge, but a series win to follow on from their success in Australia four years ago would certainly be regarded as one of the great achievements in the history of the Lions.
RICH JONES’ BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS STARTING XV
1) Jack McGrath
2) Ken Owens
3) Tadgh Furlong
4) Maro Itoje
5) Joe Launchbury
6) CJ Stander
7) Sam Warburton
8) Billy Vunipola
9) Conor Murray
10) Owen Farrell
11) Tim Visser
12) Robbie Henshaw
13) Jonathan Davies
14) George North
15) Stuart Hogg
SQUAD MEMBERS: Dylan Hartley, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler, Dan Cole, WP Nel, Alun Wyn Jones, Jonny Gray, Iain Henderson, Justin Tipuric, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahoney, Taulupe Faletau, Ben Youngs, Rhys Webb, Jonathan Sexton, Finn Russell, Jonathan Joseph, Tim Visser, Elliot Daly, Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams.