May 29 (Reuters) - The British and Irish Lions play New Zealand in a three-test series starting next month. Following is a factbox on the likely contenders for each spot in the Lions test team:
Stuart Hogg is widely regarded as favourite and if he makes the team he would be the first Scot to start a Lions test since prop Tom Smith in 2001. He had an excellent Six Nations and his aggressive running brings an attacking edge. However, there are question marks about his defence, which could open the door for Leigh Halfpenny. The Welshman has been below par this season but was Player of the Series in Australia four years ago. The versatile Elliot Daly would be a left-field selection.
On his day, England’s Anthony Watson is the man to beat to a starting spot after coming back from a succession of injuries that disrupted his season. His compatriots Daly or the in-form Jack Nowell would seem the most obvious alternatives unless the coach favours the strike running of Liam Williams, who can play anywhere in the back three and impressed on Wales’s otherwise disappointing tour of New Zealand last year.
Jonathan Davies is one of those players who Gatland knows and trusts from his time with Wales and the last Lions tour and probably owes his selection here to reputation rather than form. If Gatland wants a Jamie Roberts-style hole-puncher, then he should look no further than Robbie Henshaw, normally a 12, but Jonathan Joseph would be the selection to thrill. The 25-year-old’s selection would signal an intention to offer more than just a midfield bludgeon.
A fit Owen Farrell will make the team, the question is where? Inside centre remains the most likely option, sitting on Jonathan Sexton’s shoulder and providing a second playmaking option. Farrell has improved his distribution and his big-game mentality and his peerless goalkicking under pressure make him a key player, even if Gatland sees him as a flyhalf. Henshaw would offer a more orthodox option.
It is difficult to see beyond George North’s imposing 19-stone frame on the wing. Gatland knows what North at his destructive best is capable of - two tries in three test starts in 2013 - but the 25-year-old, who might also be used on the right, has a reputation to restore after a limp Six Nations. Daly, that tournament’s surprise packet, might be an alternative should he stand out in tour matches.
Irish playmaker Jonny Sexton is likely to be target number one for the hosts, although having Farrell alongside him at least gives the Lions a Plan B should the rough stuff take its toll. Sexton has been there, done it and breeds confidence to all those around him. Dan Biggar offers a solid third choice and, given Sexton’s frequent injuries, has a good chance of featuring at some point.
A Conor Murray-Sexton selection is a great attacking fulcrum for the Lions. They know each other inside out and, crucially, both know what it takes to beat New Zealand. Murray should be well rested after two months out with a neck nerve injury and is one of the few definite starters in the team, with the impressive Rhys Webb a buzzy replacement from the bench.
Mako Vunipola is one of the few props comfortable with the ball in hand and, as such, could be a good option from the bench against tiring defenders if he fails to dislodge Irish powerhouse Jack McGrath, a superior scrummager, from the starting line-up.
Joe Marler provides the other alternative after returning to his best following his burnout problems of a year ago.
England’s Six Nations template suggests hooker is now a two-man job with the dependable Jamie George likely to play second fiddle to Ken Owens, assuming the Welshman has fully recovered from an ankle injury. Ireland’s Rory Best was a strong candidate for tour captain but, for all his aggression and hooking skill, lacks throwing accuracy of his rivals.
Tadgh Furlong looks favourite after an impressive Six Nations in which Ireland did not lose a scrum on their own ball. Furlong will no doubt grab at the chance to ratchet up his career another notch in one of the few areas where the Lions can claim superiority. England’s Dan Cole could be Mr Dependable on the bench with the rookie Kyle Sinckler, fearsome in the loose and a fast-improving scrummager, a possible bolter.
The fact that Gatland was able to leave out Joe Launchbury shows the strength he has at lock, where fellow England men George Kruis and Maro Itoje look a dream partnership.
Four years ago Alan Wyn Jones captained the Lions in the series-clinching third test and Gatland is a huge fan. However, the 31-year-old has not played since damaging a shoulder against France in March and will have a huge job proving himself. Iain Henderson could be a good bench option.
South-African-born CJ Stander, Itoje and Peter O‘Mahoney provide a host of options. Stander was a standout in the Six Nations while O‘Mahoney will demand selection if he carries on where he left off against England in Dublin. Getting the balance of the back row right will be one of Gatland’s biggest challenges.
This should be Sam Warburton’s position but such is the competition in the back row that even the captain must go some to nail it down, particularly with Ireland’s Sean O‘Brien breathing down his neck and Justin Tipuric Wales’s current first choice. Warburton has been a phenomenal performer for Gatland and, after a wobbly 2016, exploded back to form this year when he has carried more ball than ever, albeit from the blindside.
Billy Vunipola’s name was inked in for this slot so to lose the Englishman to injury before departure was a big blow. Step forward more Tongan power in the shape of Taulupe Faletau, who has been immense for Gatland over the years and started in the decisive third test win in 2013. Wales used the 26-year-old as a replacement in the Six Nations as he recovered from injury but he looks first choice for the Lions, with compatriot Ross Moriarty pressing hard. (Reporting by Neil Robinson, editing by Mitch Phillips)