Tuesday 21 November 2017

Irish Lions will make the difference - Our experts pick their starting teams

Warren Gatland must now get down to the serious business of selecting his warriors

Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile
British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Synergy PR/Canterbury/PA Wire
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

When Warren Gatland popped into the Wales dressing-room after they beat Ireland a fortnight ago he could easily have congratulated Alun-Wyn Jones on nailing down a place on the Lions tour.

Never in the history of the biggest touring team in the world had second row been so hotly contested, but that night Jones illustrated why he is a certainty. And down the hall were a few men in green wondering what way their summer would shape up.

f the Six Nations Championship has not worked out as Ireland hoped then for collateral damage you can look at the squad heading to New Zealand. Rory Best especially needed a big campaign and came up short; both Iain Henderson and Devin Toner's credentials were damaged by being dropped; and Jamie Heaslip had the door opened for him with the absence of Billy Vunipola for the first three rounds of the competition, but didn't take advantage.

The successful shut-down job done by Wales on the carrying of the Ireland back row had negative implications for CJ Stander and Sean O'Brien as well. Yesterday they bounced back, especially Stander, but it would be hard to see him being a first-choice pick in the summer. For Ireland's halfbacks it was mostly about staying upright in this tournament and not losing the plot. Conor Murray's absence from the England game didn't affect his standing as the best nine in the competition, and Johnny Sexton's form was good when he fetched up in round three, against France. He had a wayward period in the third quarter yesterday but nailing that penalty from distance, just after the hour mark, reinforced his status as a man who delivers under pressure.

In midfield Robbie Henshaw is likely to travel but he has suffered by the style of game he's asked to play. There is a lot more to his playlist than charging down the 10-12 channel, and if Gatland wants a second playmaker in his Test side then Owen Farrell is a shoo-in.

It's doubtful Ireland will get any traction in the back three because of the doubts over Rob Kearney. It's understood the knee injury that ruled him out yesterday could be a six-to-eight-weeks job, and if he chooses to sort out the biceps problem he is carrying then it could have implications for the rest of his season.

Kearney clearly is not in the same class as Stuart Hogg as an attacker but his aerial ability is unmatched around the home countries. It's worth remembering that this is a winter gig in New Zealand - the weather will frequently be horrible. If Kearney is a goner then he might have to run with Hogg, a lethal counter-attacker but hardly Biggles in the air.

A back three of Hogg, Liam Williams and George North would fit the bill. In the 'pick your Lions' parlour game that will dominate the rest of this season it's doubtful that Williams will feature in too many teams, but he is a massive asset to any side. It's hard to think of a braver player, with a real edge, and while he may not look like a powerhouse he is a nightmare to play against.

Gatland is also spoiled for choice at half back. Ireland's pair are the best around, but there isn't much distance between them and Wales' Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar. That country's capacity to produce 9s and 10s of top quality is a constant. In Scarlets' Aled Davies they have a player who struggles to get into the club side because Gareth Davies is in the way, but he has heaps of quality.

You could say the same about the quality of forwards available to Gatland. The Lions will bring a powerful pack and should have no worries at the set-piece.

And in Maro Itoje they could well have the player of the series. He has lead England's lineout in this Six Nations and while yesterday wasn't his best day out of touch, Eddie Jones is right in saying that he will be better from the experience.

Surrounded by top-class players will make the job easier. Ireland won't have as many as they would have wished in that group, but they will have enough to make a difference.

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