Two rounds into the Six Nations, and Warren Gatland could be forgiven for losing an hour or three’s sleep each night as he mulls over his Lions squad for the tour to South Africa this summer.
Of course, we can’t be absolutely sure the trip will go ahead in these virus-plagued times.
But, if it does, the head coach will want a number of important players to start putting their hands up for places on the plane. He’ll also be anxious for others to return from injuries.
On the other side of the ledger, he’ll be pleased that new faces are showing up well in the Six Nations so far. New faces as in new to the Lions or they were outsiders for selection not so long ago.
We take at look at where the candidates are now at…
Early-season long-shots who have impressed
Louis Rees-Zammit, Jamison Gibson-Park, Dan Robson, Duhan van der Merwe, James Lowe, Wyn Jones, Tadhg Beirne, Rhys Ruddock, Tomas Francis, Andrew Porter, Willis Halaholo.
Some of these have caught the eye more than others, but all have had their moments, with Louis Rees-Zammit the standout.
The Wales youngster has scored three tries and come up with an assist in two matches, with his second score against Scotland special by any standard. He’s young and has work to do on his defence, but his pace can destroy an opposition defence.
Keep an eye on the scrum-half situation.
No No. 9 has truly performed to Lions standard in this Six Nations campaign, but when Dan Robson came off the bench for England against Italy, it appeared someone had pressed the fast-forward button. Similarly, Jamison Gibson-Park sent out 99 passes for Ireland against France. There was the odd mistake to go with them, but he looked lively.
At prop, Wyn Jones has been a big mover in Lions terms. He didn’t start for Wales’ in the first three Tests of the autumn, but he’s looked the part in this Six Nations, arguably the Welsh player of the campaign so far. Ex-Scotland lock Jim Hamilton offered the view on social media that the Scarlet is the Lions starting No. 1 as things stand. Whether Mako Vunipola wants to argue the point or not, Jones has been playing well.
Irish forwards Tadhg Beirne, Rhys Ruddock and Andrew Porter are also showing up well, while Willis Halaholo showed skill and creativity when debuting for Wales against Scotland.
George North, Anthony Watson, Justin Tipuric, Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Finn Russell, Hamish Watson, Jonny Gray, Taulupe Faletau, Rory Sutherland, Zander Fagerson, Liam Williams, Jamie Ritchie, Adam Beard, Henry Slade, Ali Price, Jonny Hill, Matt Fagerson.
There’s a hefty slab of players here, most of whom will feature in Gatland’s squad. Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau and Alun Wyn Jones are the top three tacklers in this Six Nations, with Ken Owens sharing fourth spot. We are rapidly reaching the point where Faletau should be considered a certainty to travel. With Tipuric, he has been outstanding in the Welsh back row.
Anthony Watson had a dreadful time of it for England against Scotland in round one, not touching the ball for an hour. But his footwork, pace and ambition were something else against Italy.
And then we come to Hamish Watson.
The flanker may have changed his mind about what he said in his press conference after Scotland lost to Wales — let’s just say he didn’t quite capture the true essence of grace in defeat with his initial utterings — but few are changing their thoughts about him as a player: he’s a force of nature who’s bang on top of his game.
George North will also be interesting Gatland, while the ex-Wales coach will have been pleased to see Liam Williams back on the field and Adam Beard making a mark.
He’s a talent who is capable of making the squad if he can regain fitness and avoid injury.
Stuart Hogg, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, James Ryan, Tom Curry, Jamie George, Jonny May.
In reality, there are probably a few more inked in by Gatland at this stage, but injuries and form will be concerning him. The best of this bunch has been Stuart Hogg, prominent in both Scotland’s games so far.
Could be in trouble
Jonathan Davies, Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Sexton, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies, Rhys Webb, Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly, Ben Youngs, Jack Willis, Josh Adams, Ellis Genge, Leigh Halfpenny.
There’s a mixed bag here, with some, like Jack Willis and Manu Tuilagi, having injury issues. Leigh Halfpenny has also picked up a knock, in his case while playing for Wales against Scotland, and given that he subsequently failed a head injury assessment there’ll be particular concern about him, especially with his history of concussions.
Jonathan Davies surely needs to start back soon to properly launch his challenge for a place. He’s still odds-on with bookmakers to tour, but those who’ve had a flutter on him will be becoming increasingly twitchy.
The Lions’ player of the series in 2017 needs to show some form.
No-one doubts his quality but it’s been such a stop-start time for him he’s found it hard show his real self.
The 35-year-old Jonathan Sexton will be another worry as he looks to recover from his latest head knock, while Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies were subbed early for Wales against Scotland.
Billy Vunipola? Eleven carries in two games, making just one metre against Italy. It would not be unreasonable to suggest if the Azzurri can stop him, then the Springboks would fancy their chances, too.
And what to make of Ellis Genge? A text this writer received on Sunday afternoon tipped the combustible English prop as next in line for a sending off against Wales. We don’t know that will happen, of course, but the loose-head didn’t appear bosom buddies with too many Italy players last weekend and didn’t totally win over the referee, either.
Gatland being Gatland, very much is own man, Rhys Webb’s hopes are not extinguished yet. But, outside the Wales squad, the Osprey is not exactly well placed.
Still in mix
Johnny Williams, Josh van der Flier, Will Connors, Owen Watkin, Josh Navidi.
Williams and Navidi have had bumps but are quality players who are capable of challenging for Lions places.
Grounds for concern
Owen Farrell, Tadgh Furlong, Conor Murray, Mako Vunipola, Sam Underhill, Cameron Redpath, Caelan Doris.
The first five of this group are highly likely to travel, but Owen Farrell is out of sorts and shy on creativity. Nor would Gatland have been overly impressed by a potential Lions captain becoming involved in a heated discussion with a referee, as Farrell was with Mike Adamson in the Italy match last Saturday.
The expectation is the Saracen will tour but Gatland will want him to shape up.
He’ll also be looking for an upturn from Tadhg Furlong, who has yet to start in this Six Nations after a long-term injury, featuring on the bench for Ireland behind Andrew Porter. Mako Vuniopola, an immense player when fully fit, hasn’t looked at his best and nor has Conor Murray.
Injury has sidelined Sam Underhill, with Cameron Redpath and Caelan Doris also off limits.
The fly-half’s game control for Connacht against the Dragons recently was on a different level, reproducing the form he showed in his side’s win over Leinster last month. How he’s not in the Ireland squad is perplexing.
-- to www.walesonline.co.uk