Tuesday 11 December 2018

Imagining a 41-man Lions tour squad: Ireland lead the way with 15 players after magnificent November

Peter O'Mahony. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Peter O'Mahony. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Giles Mole

The Autumn Internationals are over and the dust has settled on what was an enthralling month of matches between the best teams the two hemispheres have to offer.

Ireland and Wales claimed clean sweeps - the Irish bagging the prized scalp of the All Blacks - while England won three out of four. Scotland won two and lost two. It all bodes well for the chances of a northern hemisphere team lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy come October.

There were so many stand-out performances from individual players, but how do you quantify who did better than who in rugby terms? You select a Lions squad.

I have imagined it is a Lions year in 2019, rather than the World Cup, and selected a 41-man squad - the same number Warren Gatland took to New Zealand - based on what I saw this past month.

There are players included who were injured during the November Tests, and have been picked on reputation, but by and large this is a squad of players who impressed enough over the autumn to be counted amongst the elite in northern hemisphere rugby.

PROPS

Tadhg Furlong

If the Autumn Internationals taught us anything it is that Furlong is the best tighthead in world rugby, and to think he is still only 26. Furlong is the size of a tank, but with an impressive turn of speed and good hands for a forward. He would walk into a World XV and will be the starting Lions No 3 for many tours to come.

Jack McGrath

Furlong's partner in crime in the Ireland front row, the 29 year-old may not be guaranteed a starting Lions jersey like his compatriot, but he remains one of the best looseheads in the business and would be a fabulous squad player.

Mako Vunipola

Mako was ruled out of the November Tests but gets the nod here via dint of past performances for both England and the Lions. He would likely be the starting loosehead as the 27 year-old's scrummaging has improved immeasurably, combined with his skills at the breakdown and threat in open play.

Kyle Sinckler

He may now be England's starting tighthead but he would have to make do as back-up to Furlong in this squad. But what a player to bring on when required. Aggressive, combative, physical - Sinckler is any team's worst nightmare when coming on as a 'finisher'.

Cian Healy

The ideal squad man who, at 31 and with 82 caps to his name, would bring vast experience to the cause and ensure no drop in quality in the loosehead position. Would start off as third choice behind Vunipola and McGrath but could easily shift both in the battle for the No 1 jersey.

Andrew Porter

The final prop spot was a battle between Ireland's Porter, Wales' Tomas Francis and Samson Lee, Scotland's WP Nel and England's Harry Williams, but the place here goes to the youngest of the lot. Porter is just 22, but is already pushing Furlong hard. He could be something really special.

HOOKERS

Jamie George

He started every one of the Lions' Tests against New Zealand in 2017 and would be favourite to wear the No 2 jersey because of what he brings across the park. His lineout accuracy needs to improve, though.

Ken Owens

Solid. Dependable. Owens may not have George's all-court ability but when it comes to doing the basics well, there is nobody better.

Fraser Brown

The final hooker slot goes to Scotland's Brown, who is the perfect blend of George and Owens. It's tough on Rory Best who, at 36, led Ireland to victory over the All Blacks during the autumn series, while fellow Irishmen Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell both have claim, too. As does Dylan Hartley, who, like Owens, would bring reassuring dependability.

LOCKS

Maro Itoje

What a player he is becoming. One of England's stand-out performers during the autumn Tests and a sure-fire starter.

Alun Wyn Jones

At 33 he is still one of the best locks in world rugby and put in a monumental shift for Wales during their victory over South Africa earlier this month. Jones would be Itoje's second-row partner.

James Ryan

The young Irishman is just 22 but has already cemented his place in Ireland's second row. He possesses size, strength and athleticism and proved he can mix it with the very best as a starter in Ireland's victory over New Zealand.

Courtney Lawes

Mr Versatile, who can play equally effectively at lock and in the back row. He would travel as a squad player and would probably have to make do with a place on the bench, but what a player to bring on.

Jonny Gray

Like Lawes, Scottish lock Gray would have to start behind Itoje and Jones but such his experience and class he could quite conceivably replace either in the starting XV.

BACK ROW

Billy Vunipola

Injured for the Autumn Internationals, Billy gets selected because he is - when fit - one of the best No 8s in the world.

CJ Stander

He endured a disappointing tour to New Zealand in 2017, but this year - in the Six Nations and autumn Tests - the 28 year-old has taken his game to a new level in line with Ireland's rise to becoming New Zealand's greatest challengers. Has the ability to play on the blindside and at No 8.

Peter O'Mahony

A total warrior. And what a player to have in your side. He would put his body on the line for the cause and seemingly doesn't know the meaning of pain. He was heroic against New Zealand in the No 6 jersey.

Sean O'Brien

Sidelined for the November Tests, the 31 year-old is the veteran of two Lions tours and one of the finest flankers Ireland has ever produced. He would most likely be the starting openside in this Lions squad.

Justin Tipuric

Wales are blessed with a number of outstanding No 7s, but, now that Sam Warburton has retired, Tipuric is the best of the lot and was immense during the November Tests.

Hamish Watson

The third openside slot goes to Scotland No 7 Watson. In terms of slowing down play and pilfering ball at the breakdown, there are few better. He claims the spot ahead of England's Sam Underhill.

Taulupe Faletau

Like Billy Vunipola, Faletau was forced to miss the autumn Tests through injury, but when fit he is one of the best No 8s in the world and therefore has to travel.

Ellis Jenkins

This final back-row slot was a real tough one, with so many players deserving of a place after fine performances this autumn. In the end I've gone with Jenkins after his match-defining display for Wales against South Africa. It is harsh on players like Mark Wilson, Dan Leavy, Dan Lydiate and Ross Moriarty, but Jenkins has it all.

SCRUM-HALVES

Conor Murray

When fit, the best scrum-half in the world.

Ben Youngs

Currently playing some of the best rugby of his career, and being around Richard Wigglesworth in the England camp has certainly rubbed off because his box-kicking is now top-drawer.

Rhys Webb

A bit of a controversial choice because Webb is in this squad at the expense of another Welshman, Gareth Davies. His move to France means he has ceded possession of the No 9 jersey to Davies, who had a fine autumn. But Webb is a class above which is why rumours of his return to the Wales national set-up for the World Cup continue to swirl.

FLY-HALVES

Johnny Sexton

The World Player of the Year.

Owen Farrell

When the Lions toured New Zealand in 2017, Farrell played at inside centre in a dual-playmaker role with Sexton at 10. It was the only way to fit both of them in, so good have they both become. A true general on the field.

Finn Russell

The Scotland fly-half pips Dan Biggar, Gareth Anscombe and George Ford to the post. Biggar is especially unlucky but Russell has that X-factor, that bit of magic that can unlock even the tightest of defences.

CENTRES

Jonathan Davies

The 30-year-old Wales centre is a veteran of two successful Lions tours and remains the best No 13 in the northern hemisphere. His ability to beat a man in close quarters is second to none.

Garry Ringrose

Another of Irish rugby's young superstars, it is amazing to think that this outside centre is only 23. He started against the All Blacks in November and continues to make a big impression.

Huw Jones

Pips the likes of Jonathan Joseph, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade to the third outside-centre spot. Jones can be prone to the odd brain freeze, but the fact he is not afraid to try things, be it running the ball back from his own try line or flinging a long cut-out pass, means he warrants a plane ticket.

Robbie Henshaw

He has the ability to play inside and outside centre, but it is at No 12 that he warrants a place in this squad.

Ben Te'o

The big man in the middle, a role Jamie Roberts once played so well for the Lions. When a team needs to go route one, up the middle, Te'o is the man you give the ball to. Bundee Aki and Hadleigh Parkes are unlucky to miss out.

WINGS

Jacob Stockdale

We are running out of superlatives for this Ireland flyer - and he's only 22. Scored the only try of the game against the All Blacks in Dublin and now as 12 international tries in 14 matches.

Jonny May

England's speedster. He missed out on a place on the last Lions tour to New Zealand but has improved immeasurably since then to become one of the most dangerous wings in the world... and most probably the quickest.

Elliot Daly

In for his versatility. Currently playing at full-back for England, having transitioned from the wing, he didn't set the world alight at 15, but his all-round game - and howitzer of a left boot - makes him invaluable.

Anthony Watson

Currently sidelined with a long-term injury, he warrants his place in this squad because of what he can do when fit and firing. Eddie Jones must be praying he is available for the World Cup.

Jordan Larmour

A bit of a wildcard - there always has to be one - and what pace this young man has. He is only 21 but the talent is there. Anyone who saw his tries for Ireland against Italy in Chicago will testify to that. Honourable mentions must go to Liam Williams, George North, Jack Nowell, Chris Ashton, Joe Cokanasiga, Keith Earls and Tommy Seymour.

FULL-BACKS

Leigh Halfpenny

He of the metronomic right boot. The 29-year-old Wales full-back is already a veteran of three Lions tours. His presence of mind is what makes him stand out from the rest.

Stuart Hogg

One of the most exciting attacking players in world rugby. When given licence to run from deep, he is a joy to watch and has the pace and know-how to play at 15 or on the wing.

Rob Kearney

Eighty-six caps and counting for Ireland, two Lions tours and big-match experience that cannot be measured. Kearney has been Ireland's No 1 full-back for what feels like an eternity, and he's still only 32.

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Telegraph.co.uk

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