The battle for the British & Irish Lions jerseys was an interesting side note to a brilliant Six Nations weekend, but it must have caused a welcomed selection problem for Warren Gatland.
Scotland and Ireland remain firmly in the hunt, behind championship leaders England, who needed to dig deep to overcome a tactically astute Italian team. Both teams need to face England in the final two weeks.
With Johnny Sexton putting in a stand-out performance on his return to international rugby, alongside Conor Murray, the competition for halfback selection is hotting up, especially with Finn Russell putting in a controlled display for Scotland against Wales.
We take a look at who might have done enough to put themselves in line for a Lions jersey this week, with the days ticking down to the Lions first game in New Zealand against a provincial union selection.
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15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
With the game in the balance, at 16-13, Jonathan Davies made a big break which Hogg and Ali Price did well to cover. Two sublime passes led to the two tries, a constant threat on the counter-attack, and with Kearney, Halfpenny and Mike Brown failing to stamp a claim on the jersey, Hogg is in pole position. His kick-through deserved more but Huw Jones was grounded metres from the line.
14. Tommy Seymour (Scotland)
The winger did really well to get the ball down and remain in play under pressure from a covering tackle by Scott Williams. He should have been put in touch, but four minutes after the restart it changed the game for Scotland. As Scotland grow in confidence, expect Seymour to be in the hunt for a Lions jersey.
13. Garry Ringrose (Ireland)
Ringrose put in a huge shift against France as he continues to learn in his first Six Nations campaign. His attacking threat has grown and grown and he’s continuously learning. His attacking threat progressed as he made 15 carries and in defence put some big hits in. He will want to forget be shrugged off by Noa Nakaitaci.
12. Alex Dunbar (Scotland)
The backward kick aside, Dunbar put in a masterful defensive effort, putting in seven tackles and working tirelessly until the end. He has now managed seven turnovers in the tournament to date, including one which forced a penalty at the death on Saturday.
11. Elliot Daly (England)
With England 10-5 down after the break, Elliot Daly provided a brilliant kick to put Italy on the back-foot, with a lineout in their own 22. Italy failed to clear and it led to Danny Care darting over. He provided a much-needed spark out wide that England were lacking when under the cosh. His try put England into a lead in the second-half they wouldn’t relinquish and he should have added a second but for a last-gasp tackle by Carlo Canna.
10. Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
After just starting training fully last Tuesday Sexton took 20 minutes to get into the game, but when he did, he was sublime. His tactical kicking was immense, and looked back to his best on attacking and in defence. After Simon Zebo, he was the leading Ireland player in metres gained, with 58. While Finn Russell is worth a mention, Sexton was a steady hand that guided Ireland to victory over France.
9. Conor Murray (Ireland)
It has been a slow start to the Championship by Murray’s standards but if there was a Lions jersey on offer, he grabbed it with both hands. A sublime kick, which rolled back off the corner flag put France back on their own five-metre line summed up his day. Everything went right for him and he took his try well when Ireland needed a response. He provides a lethal attacking option off the back of rucks/scrums.
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1 Jack McGrath
McGrath made 10 tackles in a brilliant defensive effort that held a good French attack at bay. Played his part in the scrum penalty which led to Conor Murray’s try. His tussle with Cian Healy for the starting spot for Ireland will have a knock on effect on the Lions.
2. Ken Owens
While all the attention surrounds Dylan Hartley and Rory Best, the Welsh hooker is quietly going about his business. Excellent work rate in defence, while he’s yet to have a lineout go against the throw in his three matches so far in the Championship.
3 Tadhg Furlong
Furlong has grown from an unknown quantity to a serious Lions contender in a matter of months. His ability to carry the ball was evident once again against France as it took two French players to take him down on a number of occasions. He beat three defenders, and managed two offloads while also part of a pack that won each of Ireland’s seven scrums and 22 lineouts.
4 Richie Gray
The Gray brothers continue to put in huge shifts this Six Nations and this time it was Richie who stood out for us with a number of big tackles and some superb clean outs at the breakdown. Stood toe to toe with Alun Wyn Jones, which is no easy feat.
5 Joe Launchbury
Man of the match Launchbury was the first to counter-act the Italian no-ruck display by trying to bring Luke McClean into one. He was tireless around the breakdown, made 60 metres in attack, 11 carries and beat three defenders as he put in a huge second-half performance to get England back in front.
6 Maro Itoje
He was immense and it was Itoje’s defensive effort at the breakdown that led to the penalty which Danny Care scored from. He added a brilliant charge down on Giorgio Bronzini,’s kick, getting the latter’s boot grazing his head in the process, which led to Jack Nowell dancing over for England’s sixth try. He also put in nine tackles in, and his ability to play a number of positions could be key in his Lions selection.
7 Hamish Watson
The most influential substitute of the weekend. Was a questionable selection to leave Watson on the bench against Wales, but he took his chance with both hands when John Hardie limped off injured by beasting the breakdown against some fine fetchers in Warburton and Tipuric.
8 Jamie Heaslip
A clean break, two defenders beaten and an offload was a glimpse of the Heaslip of old, but he is one of the most important pieces of Joe Schmidt’s puzzle. He put in a huge shift in defence, with 15 tackles and played a key role in Conor Murray’s try, getting in front of the ball, creating more space for Murray to exploit.
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