The autumn internationals of 2016 delivered drama, intrigue, shocks and some exceptional rugby. There was Ireland beating New Zealand for the first time in over a century, the encouraging progress made by Scotland, the remarkable demise of South Africa and most of all the brilliance and consistency of Eddie Jones’s England, who have finished the year with a 100% record just over 12 months after being humiliated at their own World Cup.
Now, even though there is the small matter of the Six Nations to come in early 2017, attentions are already being turned to what is set to be one of the most exhilarating British and Lions tours in years next summer when Warren Gatland’s men head to New Zealand to face the almighty All Blacks. There is surely no greater test than beating a side who have won the last two World Cups on their home turf and discussions over the players Gatland may bring together to attempt a historic scalp are already underway. Here we take a look at some of the players who enhanced their chances of being part of the first choice XV at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington on July 1st.
The Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg was very much on the periphery of the Lions Tour in Australia back in 2013 as a backup number 10 but his form this autumn proved again that he deserves a starting place as a 15 for New Zealand. H he been brilliant over the past couple of years for his country and consistently been the best full back in the northern hemisphere for a number of seasons now. Hogg is the talisman for both Scotland and his Glasgow, for whom he has been equally as electric.
Hogg has shown this year that he has everything needed to be a true great in the position. He has immense pace, footwork and agility which enables him to exploit gaps and launch penetrative counter-attacks. In the mould of a Jason Robinson, he can conjure something from nothing. Defensively he also reads the game superbly and is second-to-none under the high ball. Form and momentum is everything when heading towards Lions tour selection and Hogg’s has been building for years. He was arguably the player of the 2016 Six Nations Championships and was at the fulcrum of everything good Scotland did during their positive autumn international experience. Build on this form in a few months’ time and his starting spot for this competitive position for the first Test will be secured.
If you let Hogg play his natural game in his natural position, then you need to make room for a player who only added to his burgeoning reputation in these recent internationals. Liam Williams plays fullback for Scarlets but has been thriving on the wing for Wales, emphasising time and again what a gifted runner and intelligent player he is. His star really rose during Wales’s tour of New Zealand over the summer, where he was their standout performer, and he has cemented his position as one of his countries best players and is now banging hard on Gatland’s door.
During their four end of season contests William’s displayed what a terrific option he could be on the wing going forwards and defensively. The man who will soon be joining Saracens is an expert finisher and broken field runner and counter attacker with a superb step. On the flip side of the coin he is strong defensively, being a tenacious and committed tackler with a natural ability to take high balls under intense pressure. There are no obvious weaknesses to a versatile game that could be hugely beneficial next summer. These Tests showed us that Williams is a true competitor in fine form and brimming with confidence – Gatland would be wise to use him.
Sports fans often don’t realise quite how important a player is until they haven’t got them. Yet that won’t be the case for the England fans coming to terms with the injury to Billy Vunipola that will keep him out of the Six Nations. They already know pivotal he has become for the Eddie Jones winning machine following a resurgence that means he is now arguably England’s most important player.
This year was the year of Vunipola, showing first in the Australia tour and now in the autumn internationals that he is currently the best number 8 in the world. He is one of the finest ball carriers around, capable of smashing his way through even the most obdurate of defences, opening up spaces for those around him. The deft handling skills and astute awareness Vunipola has when offloading and passing that bely his physical presence are no longer underrated, whilst he is utterly destructive from the base of the scrum. There are a number of other world-class options for Gatland in this position, and indeed many will argue the cases strongly for Taulupe Faletau or Jamie Heaslip. Nonetheless, on the basis that Vunipola can make a complete recovery and be up and running before the summer, how can a man nominated for the World Player of the Year in 2016 be overlooked?
Sticking with the forwards, another who did his Lions prospects no harm during these matches was the Leinster tight-head prop Tadhg Furlong. Like Vunipola, Furlong is a fierce physical specimen and sublime athlete. He is the epitome of the modern-day front rower. The 24 year-old is only at the start of his international career, having made his debut last year, but he has already showcased his talent – most notably in that famous Irish win over the All Blacks in Chicago. Furlong was simply outstanding in that win, as he was in the triumphs over Australia and South Africa, and hasn’t looked back since breaking through during the summer.
Furlong has said that he is embarrassed to be linked with a Lions starting place but he has emerged as the standout tighthead across Ireland's impressive autumn series. He has potential but could already well be the real deal. He is a key part of Ireland’s set piece and driving mauls and covers the pitch impressively, be it with ball in hand or leading from the front in defence. Looking at Furlong’s present importance to Ireland it is surprising to think he wasn’t in the starting XV during this year’s Six Nations. His all-round game would make him ideal for a mobile and exciting front-row to take on New Zealand.
To succeed in New Zealand the Lions don’t need to just be organised and resolute in defence. It is imperative that they are able to exploit the opportunities to score that come their way and for that they need natural flair and finishing. Jonathan Joseph confirmed again during the autumn that he has both in abundance. Although originally dropped for the match against South Africa, Joseph came back to score four tries in three matches and be at the core of England’s attacking game. He was clinical in the matches against Australia and Fiji yet also showed what a defensive rock he has become when he put in a brilliant performance against Argentina, after his side spent 70 minute down to 14 men. He also excelled during the away series win in Australia.
The Bath man, who has been one of Europe’s best outside centres over the past two seasons, would complement a well-balanced back division with Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw at inside centre and England’s Owen Farrell at fly-half. With his pace, strength, strong fend, eye for a gap and natural creative instincts, Joseph could well be the favourite to succeed Brian O’Driscoll as the Lions new number 13, after the legendary Irishman had made the shirt his own between 2001 and 2013. Every team needs at least one player with that x-factor. Joseph certainly has it.