Six Nations Lions Watch – who impressed this weekend?

3 weeks ago
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Louis Rees-Zammit

As the Six Nations heads into a rest weekend, there is more time to mull over what the action might mean for British and Irish Lions selection.

We should know more soon about where and whether the planned Test series against South Africa will go ahead.

But, in the meantime, some hands went up for selection for Warren Gatland’s squad.

Louis – King of the wingers?

Last week’s Lions Watch ended with the fateful words that “another couple of tries like that from Louis Rees-Zammit and Gatland will be forced to take note”. The Lions coach duly got plenty to ponder.

Rees-Zammit, who turned 20 earlier this month, was electric in the win over Scotland. He scored Wales’ first try with a lovely soft-shoe shuffle inside the covering Darcy Graham, set up their second with a nice line and offload and then clinched the victory with an absolute peach, chipping over Stuart Hogg to touch down.

The match winner could have come from the opposition though. With the clock in the red, Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe broke free, only to be tap-tackled by Owen Watkin. South African-born Van der Merwe actually made more metres than Rees-Zammit (103 to 61) in another industrious, powerful performance.

And there was a welcome return to form for England’s Anthony Watson, the man who started all three Tests for the Lions in New Zealand four years ago. Coach Eddie Jones admitted Watson’s form had been patchy over the autumn, but he made more metres than any other player this weekend as an interception try helped him to 160m. The way he raced inside the Italian cover defence to score his first though was probably more impressive.

With team-mate Jonny May also showing off his athletic finishing ability when he took the aerial route to the line, competition is getting hot. It could well be that Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale, hailed as the world’s best wing two years ago but currently out with a knee injury, misses out when Gatland draws up his selection.

Price is right?

If match-changing moments are key to selection, Ali Price supplied a gem for the first try at Murrayfield. The Scotland scrum-half deftly chipped over the Wales defence for Graham to gather and score. Such ability may well be very useful against a Springbok defence that comes up fast and flat. And if Finn Russell is going to start at 10, their partnership – shaped at Glasgow, as well as Scotland – may be a big plus for Gatland.

Conor Murray, 2017’s first-choice nine, has been short of form and fitness lately, perhaps leaving the way open for another first-time tourist.

Dan Robson injected energy and initiative after being brought off the bench by England, setting up Jack Willis’s try with a weaving run from a tap and go.

The Wasps man has made all nine Test appearances off the bench for England, but, as Jamie George showed in 2017, Gatland has made Lions Test starters out of England’s ‘finishers’ before.

Eight debate

Taulupe Faletau has been a reliable performer for Gatland.

He started all three Tests in New Zealand and was one of the Welshmen drafted in to clinch the series-deciding third Test in Australia four years earlier.

The 30-year-old produced some big numbers in the win over Scotland as well. He made more metres (63), more carries (11) and more tackles (19) than any of his team-mates.

But Matt Fagerson did not suffer by comparison. The 22-year-old, making his eighth international start, was the man to give Scotland impetus, posting similar stats to Faletau (61m made off 14 carries, with 12 tackles) and bristling with intent. Following on from an impressive performance in the win over England, he is making his case well.

England’s Billy Vunipola might well have pipped Faletau to the Test starting spot in 2017 had he not been ruled out of the tour with a shoulder injury.

However, he has not been in that eye-catching, all-action form for some time.

The Saracens man was withdrawn after 59 minutes against Italy having made 31 metres from eight carries and seven tackles. It may be that he is doing more of the breakdown dirty work as Eddie Jones evolves England’s style, but ball-carrying ballast may well be what is required against South Africa.

If Gatland’s eye strayed to a smaller stage, he may also have noted Sam Simmonds’ form. The Exeter number eight and European player of the year scored another two tries in his club’s win over London Irish. He now has 11, more than double any other player in the Premiership this season, and has made more metres than any other Lions-qualified forward in the English top flight.

His last England appearance was nearly three years ago however, back in March 2018.

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