Gatland eyes English riches for Lions tour

Sun, 12 Mar 2017 12:00

REACTION: Eddie Jones might have just done Warren Gatland a massive favour as he contemplates selection for the British and Irish Lions' tour to his native New Zealand in June.

The Australian has transformed England from World Cup flops on home soil into a team capable of equalling New Zealand's record of 18 consecutive victories and looking like one that might threaten the mighty All Blacks for the title of the world's best.

A back-to-back Grand Slam and a record 19th straight victory beckon when England travel to Dublin to take on Ireland in next weekend's final round of this year's Six Nations.

The astonishing turnaround in fortunes has rightly highlighted a number of players and, importantly, player combinations that could prove pivotal in what promises to be a bruising 10-match Lions tour that includes three Tests.

Gatland, having guided Wales to three Six Nations titles of which two were Grand Slams, proved to be an astute coach for the Lions in 2013, overseeing a 2-1 series win over Australia.

The Waikato-born former hooker, who played 17 non-Test games for the All Blacks, leant heavily on his known, and at the time winning, Welsh contingent.

Of the 37 that made the initial squad to Australia, 15 were Welsh. In the final, decisive Test there were 10 Welshmen on the teamsheet with one on the bench.

But Jones has thrown the cat amongst the pigeons with his ultra-performing England team, leaving Gatland with a veritable embarrassment of riches from which to pick.

It would be a brave coach to split up the George Ford/Owen Farrell axis that serves England so well.

The duo are ball players, able to clear lines but equally comfortable on the front foot, as was shown by Jonathan Joseph's enabled hat-trick against Scotland on Saturday.

England's forwards, led by New Zealand-born hooker Dylan Hartley, look set to figure heavily, the athleticism of locks Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, allied with the resoluteness of props Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler and Dan Coles seemingly set to be rewarded along with indefatigable flank Maro Itoje.

Then you come to barn-storming No 8s Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, snipy scrumhalf Ben Youngs and replacement centre Ben Te'o, used by Jones as an impact player but very much in a younger mould of Jamie Roberts around which Gatland based much of his early Wales gameplan.

For Wales, Sam Warburton has proven to be in the form of his life now unburdened by captaincy. Alun Wyn Jones, who skippered the Lions in that third Test in Australia in Warburton's absence through injury, has not wholly convinced for Wales this campaign.

Likewise for Ireland's Rory Best, with touted halfbacks Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton in muted form, although rough diamond South African-born blindside flank Christiaan Stander has rocketed to prominence playing alongside Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien.

Scotland showed so much promise in their convincing victory over Wales but collapsed against a marauding English side, going down to a record-equalling defeat.

The locking Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny, and fullback Stuart Hogg will surely be on the plane with Gatland.

But undoubtedly the dark horse from north of the border is Huw Jones, the Welsh-named centre born in Edinburgh, educated in England and cutting his rugby teeth in Cape Town, although he moves to Glasgow next season.

A well-taken brace of tries against England complimented his stout defensive efforts in a well-beaten team.

On their first tour to New Zealand since 2005, the Lions kick off their campaign on June 3 and take in seven midweek matches including against all of New Zealand's five Super XV teams – the Blues, Crusaders, Highlands, Chiefs and Hurricanes, with three Tests against the two-time defending World Cup champions.

Speaking before England smashed Scotland, Gatland said it was in everyone's interests that each of the Home Unions does well in the Six Nations.

"I'm a great believer in the idea that we should want Scotland doing well, because we should want them to be represented in the Lions," he said.

"Sometimes, the team who win the Six Nations can have 17 or 18 in the squad of 38 or 40. The team finishing lowest, you still want six or eight coming in, because then we all feel part of it.

"There was no pressure in 2013 to pick anyone from any nation."

Agence France-Presse

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