The seventh article in a series will analyse the options Warren Gatland has at number 8 for the British and Irish Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand.
There are arguably only a limited number of world-class out-and-out number 8s with the experience and/or form to realistically secure a place in this Lions squad, meaning this article might be shorter than other pieces in the series.
Ireland – Jamie Heaslip
The Irish stalwart has amassed 96 international test caps, with five coming from previous tours with the British and Irish Lions. At 33 years of age this is almost certainly his last chance to pull on a Lions jersey, meaning the upcoming Six Nations will be his last chance to prove his form warrants inclusion into the initial Lions squad. He started the big matches against New Zealand and Australia in the recent Autumn internationals, winning two out of three and proving that he is still Ireland’s premier choice at the back of the scrum – although Jack O’Donoghue looks likely to have a long and promising international career.
CJ Stander is Ireland’s other world class number eight, having played all his matches for Munster this season in the number 8 jersey, but he is anticipated to be selected for the Lions squad as a blindside flanker.
England – Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes
A battering ram with the athleticism of an overweight basketball player, Vunipola was arguably the front-runner to anchor the Lions scrum against the All Blacks.
The knee injury suffered recently whilst on duty for Saracens means he is out of action for up to three months, meaning his fate is similar to that of Chris Robshaw – his form for Saracens after returning from injury is anticipated to ultimately decide his fate regarding Lions selection.
Whilst fans of Wales, Ireland and Scotland are presumably thankful the 21-odd stone steam-train is unavailable for the upcoming Six Nations, they would probably still like to have him as an option on this Lions tour.
Eddie Jones next choice at number 8 is another player whose family hail from the Pacific islands, and is also unsurprisingly a very physical ball carrier that can make bone-crunching hits.
The Wasps anchor has three caps for England, coming off the bench twice and starting against Australia in the 2016 Autumn internationals – a 100% start for the man born in Fiji. With Vunipola out of the upcoming Six Nations, Hughes has the perfect opportunity to cement his place in the England starting line-up and stake a real claim for a spot in the Lions squad.
Wales – Taulupe Faletau
The third player on this list whose parents are from the Pacific islands, Faletau is a more athletic option at the back of the scrum and less of a run-over-the-top ball carrier.
62 Wales caps highlight the international experience Faletau would bring, and at 26 years of age he could have another two Lions tours ahead of him. Despite playing every minute of Wales’ 2016 Six Nations, he has only been selected five times for Bath this season and played only 39 minutes in the 2016 Autumn internationals due to injury.
Ross Moriarty would have been the other Welsh number eight on this list, but he was proposed and debated in the blindside flanker article.
Scotland – Ryan Wilson
The Warriors back rower has been utilised most as a number eight under Vern Cotter and it is probably his best shout of being selected for the Lions tour of New Zealand. The
The 27-year-old has 23 caps for the Dark Blue and has the opportunity to capitalise on the current lack of competition for Scotland’s number eight jersey in the upcoming Six Nations, but the Glasgow Warrior is an outsider for selection into this Lions squad.
Dave Denton is out of form for Bath and Scotland and has not played since injuring his hamstring in September, whilst John Barclay was discussed in the blindside flanker article.
Billy Vunipola would still be many pundit’s frontrunner to anchor the Lions scrum against the All Blacks, with his form after returning from injury anticipated to be somewhat influential in this decision.
Jamie Heaslip and Taulupe Faletau are the most experienced options in this list and were the two number 8s chosen for the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia.
Nathan Hughes can capitalise on Vunipola’s absence from the England squad, and if he can put in a string of impactful performances in a Six Nations which the Red Rose is arguably the favourite to win, then he could either replace or join Vunipola in the initial Lions squad.
Two will probably be chosen by Gatland to go on the tour of New Zealand – with the 2017 Six Nations providing the perfect platform for each to showcase their skill-sets and prove why they should be chosen to anchor the Lions scrum down under.
Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena