With the first British and Irish Lions test against South Africa just under two months away, pundits have been naming their starting XVs to take on the World Champions, and Alan Quinlan is no different.
The former Munster and Ireland flanker has picked a very interesting side for his first test against South Africa, with two youthful wingers, and four Irishmen all making the starting team.
Quinlan’s lineup up contains some major surprises, especially when compared to Brian O’Driscoll’s selections for Off The Ball.
B&I Lions Forwards
With a starting front row of Mako Vunipola, Ken Owens and Tadhg Furlong, Quinlan has opted for a mix of experience and form.
While the obvious form selection would be have Wyn Jones starting ahead of the Englishman, Quinlan believes that Vunipola’s strengths outweigh his current lack of form and fitness.
“I think [Wyn Jones] is still not where he can get to,” Quinlan said. “I think he is improving, and if you get Mako Vunipola match fit, he can be devastating with the ball and without.”
For Quinlan, Furlong’s starting place is a guarantee based on current form, however it is in the middle where he had to make a tough choice.
“The only one that is straight forward and certain is Tadhg Furlong at this point,” Quinlan said. “I think Jamie George from a fitness point of view will hope to get up to speed.
“[Luke] Cowan-Dickie is explosive as well, but I think Ken Owens brings that consistency, physicality, strength, and scrummaging ability.”
Quinlan made another big call in the second row, opting to leave out arguably one of the best locks in world rugby in favour of a player that is currently in better form.
“I am picking Jonny Hill in the second row because I think he is a great player,” Quinlan said. “Some of the English players have been judged harshly.
“They were poor in the Six Nations, but there is mitigation around that with a lot of Saracens players not having played matches.”
While he acknowledged that Maro Itoje might be the better player currently, Quinlan opted to start the tour captain, as he feels that the captain needs to start.
“If Alun Wyn Jones isn’t captain, then it is Itoje and Jonny Hill in the second row,” Quinlan said.
“Obviously Wyn Jones is captain, so he has got to start. That may change, Warren Gatland said that at the beginning when he announced the captaincy as well, but ideally you want your captain starting all three tests.
“The reason I am going for Jonny Hill is because Itoje’s form in the Six Nations wasn’t great. He is a superb player, he is world class, and he is someone who will inevitably play well in the warmup games before the first test.”
This year’s Lions back row is a particular talking point, because all of the players in the squad could easily see themselves in a starting jersey, according to Quinlan.
“There is a lot of stuff you could do with the back row,” Quinlan said. “You look at Jack Conan is there, Sam Simmonds, Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson, there are loads of different players.
“You could play Tom Curry at six and play Tipuric or Watson at seven. I think there are only two guaranteed starters at the moment.
“I think Faletau and Curry are the two players whose performances in the Six Nations merit them being definite starters at the moment.”
Alongside the two that he feels are guaranteed starters, Quinlan has opted for an Irishman to make up some bulk, but also add to the already impressive breakdown threat of the back three.
“I think [Tadhg Beirne] give you incredible turnover ability,” Quinlan said. “You could easily put Courtney Lawes there as well, which could happen.
“When the coaches sit down and think, ‘are we going to go head-to-head with them from a physical point of view?’
“You have four poachers there… which kind of indicates that he is going for pace, mobility and he is going to try and attack that South African breakdown.
“I just think putting Beirne into the back row gives you that lineout option, which will be crucial, but also that breakdown ability to get a couple of big turnovers.”
B&I Lions Backline
For Quinlan, the halfbacks are an easy choice, with Conor Murray the clear favourite for the number nine jersey, while the physicality of Owen Farrell secures him the starting flyhalf spot.
“[Either Owen Farrell] starts at 10, starts at centre or doesn’t start at all,” Quinlan said. “I think he is a fantastic player; I love his resilience and leadership and physicality.
“Sometimes he has been criticised for that, but he is a real leader, I think he is a great player. I would have Owen Farrell as my starting 10 given his ability and his mental strength.
“I would have Conor Murray inside him. Just based on a bit of a hunch, I think Murray and Farrell are the starting nine and 10.”
Although the other flyhalves in the squad have their own merits, Quinlan believes that, against the Springboks, Farrell’s set of attributes makes him the logical choice.
“Dan Biggar has played really well for Wales and is a brilliant player,” Quinlan said. “Finn Russell obviously is that maverick who can do something special.
“But I just think when you play the Springboks it is about control, and it is about playing in the right areas.
“It is not that I want to see the Lions kick the leather off the ball, but I think that Farrell is a good distributor as well.”
Another one of Quinlan’s not-so-typical calls comes in the centres, where he has selected utility back Elliott Daly to start alongside Robbie Henshaw.
“You could argue that this isn’t a form selection with Elliot Daly at 13,” Quinlan said. “He also plays fullback and wing; he is very versatile.
“I just think the pace he gives you at outside centre offers you a real attacking threat. He is a brilliant footballer, he is physical as well, and he has been on a Lions tour before.”
Regardless of who plays alongside him, or in which numbered jersey, Quinlan believes that Henshaw is a guaranteed starter at either 12 or 13.
He added that Gatland could easily select an all-Ireland centre combo if Bundee Aki were to play himself into form during the lead-up matches.
“Robbie Henshaw at 12, I think he is the form 12 throughout the whole Six Nations,” Quinlan said. “For the last six months he has been fantastic.
“Again, you could move things around and put Robbie Henshaw at 13 and Bundee Aki at 12. And if Farrell goes to 12, Henshaw goes to 13; he is starting at the moment, definitely.
“Bundee Aki has to show [Gatland] some form. Aki is an incredibly talented player who can do brilliant things.
“He is quick, he is very aggressive going forward, and he gives you that pivotal point if you want him to make hard carries.
“He is a good distributor as well. Whether he starts in the first test is solely down to Bundee Aki and how he plays in the lead-up games.”
Quinlan’s back three substitutes experience for out-and-out attacking flair. He has opted to go with the two youngsters Louis Rees-Zammit and Duhan van der Merwe on the wings for the Lions first test, with the maverick Stuart Hogg at fullback.
“I think with the way that Stuart Hogg has played this year, he has matured, he has added to his game,” Quinlan said.
“A couple of years ago he was in the bracket of Finn Russell, where he is this incredible talent, but sometimes the basic fundamentals aren’t done to a high standard.
“I think he has matured a lot, his decision making is good, and his attacking threat is superb. I think he deserves to go down on the team sheet now.”
For Quinlan, the two wingers’ current form for Wales and Scotland respectively have put them in front of their more experienced counterparts.
“Louis Rees-Zammit, obviously he is quite inexperienced, but I just think the way he played the Six Nations was just a joy to watch,” Quinlan said.
“I think he is such a natural runner, and a great footballer. He is young, and that may cause an issue or two for Warren Gatland, given that I am leaving out Liam Williams and Anthony Watson.
“I think he has brought [Duhan] van der Merwe for a reason,” Quinlan added. “He is big, he is quick, and he is very physical; he is hard to stop.”
Alan Quinlan’s test XV for the Lions:
Stuart Hogg, Louis Rees-Zammit, Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Duhan Van Der Merwe, Owen Farrell, Conor Murray
Mako Vunipola, Ken Owens, Tadgh Furlong, Alun Wyn Jones, Jonny Hill, Tadhg Beirne, Tom Curry, Taulupe Faletau