British and Irish Lions selection: England and Wales show Warren Gatland the way
This was the defining weekend of the Six Nations, both in terms of the tournament itself and looking ahead to selection for the British and Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand in the summer - writes Tom Bennett.
England’s demolition of Scotland all-but guaranteed they will make up a larger portion of the Lions squad than any of the other three nations. But Warren Gatland will also have been impressed by some familiar faces in the Wales squad, who he will need little persuading to pick.
Good weekend for...
EVERYBODY IN AN ENGLAND SHIRT
The win over Scotland was a statement performance, with England outplaying their visitors right across the park.
Arguably the only player who didn’t strengthen his case for selection was Jack Nowell, who had a solid but unspectacular display that raised a couple of questions over his defensive solidity. The likes of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson are already pencilled in for the summer tour, but Saturday at Twickenham saw one or two fringe options make a big case in-front of the watching Gatland.
Gatland had name-checked Ford ahead of the Calcutta Cup, saying he was interested to see how the fly-half matched up compared to Finn Russell, so it was timely for Ford to deliver by far his best performance of the tournament.
The doubts over Ford are over his defence and his ability to control a game when his pack aren’t dominating, so neither of those questions will have been answered on Saturday. But what we did get was a reminder of Ford’s impressive ability to unlock a back-line. Did he do enough to jump ahead of Russell in the pecking order? Time will tell.
The standard of second row options available to Gatland is absurdly high, yet Lawes has delivered four exceptional performances in England’s championship-winning run to throw himself right into the mix.
A starting Test spot seems unlikely, but Lawes has upped his all-round game significantly, yet still brings the big-hitting physicality that could make him a useful option off the bench. If George Kruis gets fit in time it would be possible to justify taking four English locks, such has been their quality under Eddie Jones.
British and Irish Lions rugby squad captain Sam Warburton (L) and head coach Warren Gatland pose on Downing Street with the Tom Richards Cup before meeting Britain Prime Minister David Cameron (not seen) in London September 16, 2013.Reuters
Should the Lions pick an out-and-out openside? Warburton has answered that question emphatically in the big games, dominating first the breakdown against first England and now Ireland, all-but cementing his place in Gatland’s plans.
Such is the competition for places elsewhere it could even be that he’s named Lions captain yet again – although such has been his improvement since the Welsh captaincy burden has been taken off his shoulders that would be a strange decision.
The bronzed scrum-half is a good bet to feature in the Test side, but up until this weekend he was up against it to oust Conor Murray from the starting spot.
However, Webb was at his fizzing best against the Irish and will be hugely disappointed if he’s not involved against the All Blacks.
North needed that, badly. Gatland will be keen to pick the winger that he's based his Welsh game-plan on in recent years and the 24-year-old delivered an extremely encouraging performance against Ireland.
If Farrell starts at 12 then the Lions will be very keen to have a ball-carrying option elsewhere in the back division, giving North a leg-up that he barely deserves based on overall form during the tournament, but he might just have avoided the chop.
Henshaw’s rush of blood to the head at a maul should not take away from what was a big all-round performance from the inside centre.
Gatland could opt to go against his usual style and ape England by picking Farrell as a second receiver at 12… but if he goes for a more traditional centre in that position then Henshaw must be the prime candidate.
Wales’ skipper has come under big pressure for his place in the Lions squad from England’s second row contingent and the Gray brothers, yet this weekend he underlined why he’s a likely starter for Gatland.
A big-game player, AWJ was dominant at the lineout, huge at the breakdown and offered an intimidating defensive presence when Ireland cranked up the pressure in the final 20 minutes.
Bad week for…
The Gray brothers were both outplayed by their English counterparts, but it was Jonny who was particularly disappointing. He went into Saturday’s match with a burgeoning reputation, but made a string of errors.
Such is the competition for places that one bad performance could be enough to rule him out of the reckoning… and unfortunately he might just have had that.
Wales' fly-half tried to play flatter and struggled badly. Three times he was either intercepted or almost intercepted and it would be a real turn-up if Gatland decides that the solid but unspectacular Biggar is a better creative bet at 10 than any of the major alternatives.
For the Lions to win in New Zealand they will need players who can unlock the door, and Biggar won’t turn into one of those overnight.
The Scotland outside centre was an outsider for the squad, but even his tries at Twickenham didn’t disguise a performance that showed major defensive limitations.
Jonathan Joseph isn’t easy to deal with, but then it won’t be easy against the All Blacks either and Jones’ display will have worried the watching Gatland.
Both CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien are players that will appeal to Gatland. But if the Lions coach opts for a ‘fetcher’ at 7 then O’Brien (and England’s James Haskell) will be competing with Stander for that ball-carrying role at 6. So it was unfortunate for the pair that they struggled so much at the breakdown against Wales.
Stander still made one particularly eye-catching run with the ball in hand, but the game in Cardiff was a chance for the pair to stake a claim in the Test XV and neither made a totally convincing case.