Jamie Roberts gives Sky Sports Rugby Union his verdict on the centres from Britain and Ireland that have impressed most, the potential Wales contenders for the Lions squad, and other close selection calls, plus he puts together a XV to tackle South Africa in this summer’s Test series
Jamie Roberts, a Lions tourist in 2009 and 2013, picks his XV to face the Springboks
Wales centre and two-time British & Irish Lions tourist (2009, 2013) Jamie Roberts assesses how potential squad members are shaping up ahead of the tour to South Africa and names who he would pick to face the Springboks…
Who has impressed in terms of the centres?
Jamie Roberts: When I look at the midfield, I don’t see that many candidates putting their hands up to start. Robbie Henshaw was brilliant against England – he is a Test Lion in the waiting. The English midfield has been pretty disappointing. There has been a lot of chop and change there.
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Jonathan Davies is still coming back to full fitness, although he has played pretty well in the last few games. George North has been impressive coming in off the wing and playing 13. George is a Test Lion. He’s a special player and will make the Test side, it’s just a question of whether Warren Gatland starts him on the wing or in the midfield.
It all comes down to how the Lions want to play the game against the Springboks. Do they want a 10 and 12 who are ball players, so you can get the ball to width to the dangerous runners like Anthony Watson, Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit? Or is it going to be about the advantage line? If it’s the latter, then Henshaw is your man at 12. He is the form midfielder at the minute.
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw has impressed Roberts most in terms of centres
I think they’ll pick two 10s, plus Owen Farrell. It wouldn’t surprise me if they picked both Dan Biggar and Johnny Sexton with Farrell as a 12, which means Finn Russell misses out. Before the Six Nations started, we were waxing lyrical about Russell. It’s frightening some of the calibre of players who will miss out on selection, but that’s the way it should be.
It’s all about balancing that side. Henshaw is the frontrunner in midfield, along with North. Who else makes up that contingent is very difficult to pick from. Garry Ringrose has been impressive, and a bolter in Huw Jones is in that conversation. As an attacking threat, even in the short time we have seen him, he offers something completely different to other midfielders.
Who are the Welsh contenders?
JR: Alun Wyn Jones will tour, no doubt, and it’s a question of whether two or three of the back row will be selected. Taulupe Faletau is the starting No 8, he is head and shoulders above everyone else at the minute. He’s likely to battle for that jersey with CJ Stander – he is an impressive player and will want to bow out with a victory over his homeland.
Josh Navidi is in the conversation as well. He has been mightily impressive since coming back from injury. But he’s up against Tom Curry, Hamish Watson… that back row conversation is crazy. We haven’t even mentioned someone like Sam Simmonds. That guy should be walking into that England No 8 spot on form. Warren will appreciate someone like Simmonds, a fantastic rugby player who is carving it up in the Premiership at the minute.
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Justin Tipuric is such a unique player, wonderfully gifted. Whether he is the sort of player Warren will want against the Boks is interesting. He might want to go for a more powerful, stronger back row. That then dictates who plays in the second row.
Tadhg Beirne and Maro Itoje can play second row or back row, James Ryan and Iain Henderson are in the conversation. It’s all about balance. If you’re going to give up that real punch in size and put Jones and Beirne in the second row, then I think Gatland will pick a Watson, Curry, Faletau back row. But if Itoje partners Jones, he can afford a Tipuric.
Alun Wyn Jones is on the plane, it’s just a question of the captaincy. A left-field pick for me is Ken Owens. If you look at all the Home Nations’ captains – Alun Wyn, Sexton, Hogg, Farrell – they are all in positions that are hotly contested. It’s hard to be certain they’ll be starters for the first Test. It depends on whether Gatland wants a tour captain or someone who’s assured of that Test spot.
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When I look through the team and competition in each position, Owens is top of the pecking order at hooker. He toured with the Lions in 2017 and captained them for a midweek game, and is captain at the Scarlets. He is a very experienced, highly-respected player. It wouldn’t surprise me if he came into the captaincy equation.
Alongside Owens in the front row, Wyn Jones has been highly impressive. Mako Vunipola is the old stager along with Cian Healy, but Jones is the young guy. I think all three will tour. On form, Jones is the most impressive loosehead and a Lion in waiting. Tighthead is Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler. Andrew Porter will probably tour as well if they take six props.
Adams is a potential Test starter and Liam Williams and Hogg are in a straight shootout for full-back. Watson has to start on the right wing. Rees-Zammit has had an impressive campaign and his ability with ball in hand is like no-one else. Whether he is a Test Lion yet… Never write him off and I think he’s potentially going to tour. But Adams, Watson and one of Williams and Hogg will make the back three.
Jamie Roberts’ Lions XV to face South Africa
15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland), 14 Anthony Watson (England), 13 George North (Wales), 12 Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), 11 Josh Adams (Wales), 10 Dan Biggar (Wales), 9 Conor Murray (Ireland); 1 Wyn Jones (Wales), 2 Ken Owens (Wales), 3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland), 4 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), 5 Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), 6 Hamish Watson (Scotland), 7 Tom Curry (England), 8 Taulupe Faletau (Wales).
Wales’ Josh Adams has made the cut in Roberts’ XV on the wing
Sinckler is a different sort of player who is probably more comfortable than Furlong on the ball, but in the tight facets of the game which will be crucial against the Boks, Furlong starts at No 3 for me. As much as having Beirne in the second row is potentially a little lightweight by not having Itoje, I make up for that with my back row selection.
I could leave Beirne out, but he has arguably been player of the Six Nations. To think how his game has progressed, it was obvious he was a brilliant player when he had those two years at the Scarlets but he has gone back to Ireland and been a shining light for them. He’s good enough to start alongside Alun Wyn, who has started the last nine Lions Tests. His credentials speak for themselves.
In the back-row, Faletau is uber aggressive, brilliant over the ball – just a fantastically physical back row. That balance in the back row will be really good against the Boks.
With the way the Lions will want to play against the Boks, Murray is in pole position for scrum-half. I don’t think Warren will want to play a high tempo; he’ll want to go toe to toe at the set-piece and get it spot on tactically with a kicking game. At 10, Biggar is in great form at the minute and is very smart tactically. Defensively he is stronger than Sexton, it’s an area he has worked hard on. And when the Boks look at that 9-10-12 channel, they’re going to see guys who can hold their own defensively.
At full-back, it is a straight shootout between Hogg and Liam Williams. I’m going with Hogg mainly for his long kicking ability. If Biggar does start at 10, you’ve got a fantastic goalkicker, but as we saw with Elliot Daly against the All Blacks four years ago, that can potentially win you Test matches.
Hogg and Williams are level pegging. With the Scotland captain’s ability on the ball, he is a frightening counter-attacker. That’s my closest call. It is going to be a serious selection headache for Gatland.