The fifth article in a series will analyse the options Warren Gatland has at blindside flanker for the British and Irish Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand.
With recent injuries to Dan Lydiate and Chris Robshaw, the number six jersey might be slightly less competitive than previously thought. However, it will be no easy task attaining a place in Gatland’s initial Lions squad in any position.
This article will attempt to conclude which two blindside flankers are most likely to be chosen for the initial touring party, as was the case for the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia (where Sam Warburton covered both sides of the scrum).
Ireland – CJ Stander, Josh Van Der Flier
The South African-born Munsterman has had a meteoric rise over the past three seasons to become Joe Schmidt’s first choice at blindside. His form since arriving at the Limerick based club in 2012 has earned him plaudits from around the world – with his leadership skills, aggressive physicality and intensely determined mindset contributing to him being named Munster’s Player of the Year twice in a row and the Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year in 2016.
Despite having only 10 caps for the country he qualifies to play for under residency regulations, Stander is widely argued to be a certainty for Gatland’s initial touring squad.
Ireland’s more experienced option at blindside is the 1.91 metre Munsterman who has 37 international caps to his name. Despite starting a majority of Munster’s matches this season at 6 (with Stander at 8), O’Mahony has been displaced regarding his starting berth for Ireland – with Stander selected to start three out of four of the 2016 Autumn internationals and O’Mahony’s only start coming in the 52-21 win over Canada.
His long-term injury suffered against France in the 2015 World Cup gave the opportunity for players like Iain Henderson, Josh Van der Flier and CJ Stander to stake claims in the back row, with Stander capitalising the most on the opportunities provided.
It was unlucky for O’Mahony, who was playing some of the best rugby of his life during the 2015 World Cup. He still has the time and should arguably be given the opportunities during the 2017 Six Nations to further stake his claim, but it will be a tough task to displace the in-form Stander within the Ireland setup.
England – Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood
Robshaw will be out of action for the next 3 months with a shoulder injury, which has led some to argue that his chances of being selected for the upcoming Lions tour of New Zealand are significantly lower than they were a couple of months ago. Robshaw started all 14 of England’s matches at blindside in and undefeated 2016, playing 864 minutes out of a possible 1120. Based on his form and consistency of performance at international level, Robshaw was widely argued to be a
Robshaw started all 13 of England’s matches at blindside in an undefeated 2016, playing 864 minutes out of a possible 1120. Based on his form and consistency of performance at international level, Robshaw was widely argued to be a front-runner for inclusion in Gatland’s initial squad.
His reputation, 55 caps of experience and the form he was in for England are factors which Gatland and his coaching staff will surely take into account, but his selection for the Lions may ultimately rest on how quickly he can recover from injury, as well as how well he performs for Harlequins in the last 2-3 months of the Premiership season.
He may have played at openside during the 2016 Autumn Internationals, but Wood earned most of his England and Northampton caps on the blindside. Once described as “distinctly average” by Eddie Jones, Wood made a successful return to international rugby during England’s undefeated Autumn series, starting the matches against South Africa, Argentina and Australia. He has 45 international caps, making him one of
He has 45 international caps, making him one of the more experienced players on this list. However, his exclusion from England squads for most of 2016, mixed results and his form at Northampton and the fact that he is often used as a utility back-rower may hinder Wood’s chances of inclusion in the initial touring party as a blindside flanker. With Robshaw definitely out of the upcoming Six Nations and uncertainty surrounding Haskell’s involvement after suffering a concussion against Leicester, Wood has the perfect opportunity to stake his case for inclusion into the Lions squad as a number 6.
Wales – Dan Lydiate, Ross Moriarty
It currently looks very unlikely that Lydiate will be fit for the Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand. The injury to his anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the 37-21 win against South Africa will require surgery, with Steve Tandy stating that Lydiate is expected to make a return for Opreys in the 2017/18 season.
With 57 caps for Wales and three for the British and Irish Lions, Lydiate would have added experience as well as a strong tackling and breakdown based skill-set to this touring squad, and was a likely front runner for selection.
Gloucester and Wales’ bulldozing blindside flanker earned the first of his 12 international caps starting in a 35-21 defeat to Ireland, receiving a yellow card on the day. His form as part of an under-performing Gloucester outfit has improved in recent seasons, with Moriarty claiming this is partly due to increased self-control on the pitch.
His abilities to cover the number eight position, be an effective ball carrier and be aggressive in the loose warrant (to some extent) his inclusion in the initial Lions squad. But with Gloucester in the bottom five of the Aviva Premiership and there being more experienced blindsides who are arguably in better form, Moriarty will have to perform above current expectations in the upcoming Six Nations if he is to improve his chances of selection.
Scotland – John Barclay, Robert Harley
Despite playing predominately at openside throughout his career, Barclay has seemingly been shifted to the blindside and number 8 positions by Vern Cotter – this was the case in the 2016 Autumn internationals and in the first four matches of the 2016 Six Nations.
At 30, he has seen his international playing time reduced in recent seasons to presumably facilitate the development of players like Rob Harley, John Hardie, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson and Magnus Bradbury.
Barclay still has a few years on the clock, is in good form for a Scarlets outfit challenging for a playoff spot in the Pro12 and can provide cover for all positions in the back row, as well as second-row. If selected by Vern Cotter for the 2017 Six Nations, Barclay would have to capitalise on any opportunities presented to him to further his case for inclusion in the Lions squad.
It is arguably Harley’s time in the sun regarding his Scotland career, with Blair Cowan and John Barclay in their 30s and seeing less international playing time than they once did. Magnus Bradbury will be stiff competition over the next few seasons, but seeing as he has one international cap and is part of an Edinburgh squad in the middle of a mixed season, Harley would be a more probable option for Lions selection this time round.
At 1.98 metres, Harley is the tallest player on this list and can cover the second row, adding flexibility to the Lions set piece options. His form for Glasgow Warriors (who lie fifth in the Pro12) has been consistent, with the 26-year-old presumably raring to add to his 19 Scotland caps and get a chance to pull on a Lions shirt. If he can secure the blindside flanker starting berth for Scotland in the upcoming Six Nations and help the Dark Blue to some unexpected results, Harley may be a somewhat shock inclusion in the initial Lions squad.
Based on form for club and country, Stander should be one of the two players (who are predominately blindside flankers) anticipated to be selected in the initial Lions touring party. With Munster currently top of their group in Europe and third in the Pro12, as well as Ireland looking forward to what could be a third Six Nations title in four years, Stander will no doubt be fired up to help both teams win some silverware.
The second spot is very close to call, with the previous front-runners being Dan Lydiate and Chris Robshaw. Injury to the former will mean that he is almost certain to miss the tour of New Zealand, whilst Robshaw’s three months out mean could still be selected. The latter’s contributions to England’s undefeated 2016 should not be overlooked, but his form for Harlequins when he returns from injury will most likely be the ultimate decider of his fate.
The Six Nations will therefore provide a chance for players like Ross Moriarty, Peter O’Mahony, Tom Wood, John Barclay and Rob Harley to really stake their claim for selection as the second blindside flanker. If any of these players secure the number six jersey for their country, put in solid performances during the tournament and significantly contribute towards winning results, they will undoubtedly improve their chances of earning a place in Gatland’s Lions squad.
Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena