Home Unions set to renew rivalry in ‘Rugby’s Greatest Championship’
A host of British & Irish Lions past and future will take the field this weekend in northern hemisphere rugby’s greatest testing ground – the NatWest 6 Nations.
Much attention will obviously fall on 2017 tourists renewing rivalry on the field, while this weekend will also see members of the successful coaching team from the Tour to New Zealand return to the Championship in which they forged their reputations.
The weekend begins with the clash of Wales and Scotland, which will see 2013 and 2017 Head Coach Warren Gatland take on Gregor Townsend, the great number 10 who embodied the flair and attacking ambition of the 1997 Lions.
On the field, the likes of Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones and Leigh Halfpenny bring vast Lions experience to the Welsh starting XV.
Scotland also have Lions quality with Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour named in a Scottish back division that will give Wales plenty to think about. The 25-year-old Hogg, having unfortunately missed out on the majority of the New Zealand Tour, is one player Gatland has highlighted as a potential star of the upcoming Championship.
The likes of Josh Adams and Ali Price, who have recently emerged as leading players in their positions in northern hemisphere rugby have the chance to enhance their reputations.
It’s an impossibly tight match to call with Scotland bringing renewed belief and an attractive style to Cardiff to take on a Welsh side with a track record of landing Championships whether fancied by the cognoscenti or not.
In the second match of the afternoon, Ireland have arguably the toughest task of all the Home Nations – no matter how youthful or untested any French side is, history shows that no trip to Paris is an easy one.
There is quality throughout the Irish squad with four of the tight five have worn Lions red, while of the back row Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander both performed crucial roles this summer. No pack containing six Lions should be taken lightly.
Behind the scrum, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, both Test half-backs in 2013 and 2017, give pace, distribution and control in the key game-management positions while there is a mix of youth and experience outside them with the likes of Keith Earls and Rob Kearney boasting Lions experience of old.
Wing Jacob Stockdale and lock James Ryan are among the up-and-coming players to watch – both just 21 years of age, both tipped for big things on the Test scene.
England also boast a plethora of Lions in their ranks with Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Ben Te’o and Anthony Watson all having played vital roles in New Zealand in 2017.
On the bench, Jamie George, the starter for the Lions this summer, returns to his role as ‘finisher’ and could be a key player through this Championship. 2017 Tourists George Kruis, Jonathan Joseph and Jack Nowell also primed to make an impact in the final quarter.
With an eye to the future, Sam Simmonds at number eight, has his chance to impress with Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes unavailable. The 23-year-old Exeter Chief will have few better chances to impress than playing opposite the great Italian loose forward Sergio Parisse.
A weekend to savour and one for Lions fans to cheer on their nations, while also taking note of players showing notable skill and character as they take on their direct rivals for Lions selection in years to come.