England's Owen Farrell only nailed-on selection for the Lions
OPINION: If you were picking your Lions team tomorrow, how many dead certs are there in the starting XV? You could make a good argument for Stuart Hogg at full-back and potentially Maro Itoje. But in my eyes there is only one nailed-on starter, and that is Owen Farrell.
You could argue that Warren Gatland should have a good idea of his preferred XV by now, but I think he will love the fact that the competition is so fierce. Look at the second-rows he has available to him: Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Alun Wyn Jones, Jake Ball, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis and Itoje.
If you are in that second row you must be thinking: "I am supposed to be one of the best players in the world but I may not go on this trip." Even if you are Jones, someone a lot of people have picked as a potential captain, he must have an element of doubt about whether he will definitely make it.
I would say this is the hardest Lions tour to get on from the ones I can remember, and that gives an indication of how brilliantly Farrell has been playing.
I chucked a little hand grenade on Twitter this week, suggesting that he is a better player than Jonny Wilkinson, which got quite a response. In reality, you cannot really compare players from different eras because the game has advanced so much. The only observation I will make is that I never really thought that Jonny attacked the line that well. He took the ball to the line very well, but he would do a double-foot step and distribute the ball wide. On occasions, Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall would ask for the ball a little bit earlier because he would bring the defensive line too far on to him.
When Farrell attacks, he pushes the tackle line back because his shoulders are always square and he runs hard. I think that is the difference.
What you can say is that Farrell now belongs in that conversation of great first fives. Next week he will win his 50th cap for England and he has already scored 562 points, second on the all-time list behind Wilkinson. Given that he is only 25, you would bet on him overtaking Jonny eventually.
He has always been an excellent kicker, whether from hand or the tee. Even when he broke through at Saracens as a teenager he could put it on a sixpence. But he has improved his all-round game so much. Now he is starting to attack the line with a very square shoulder, so he becomes a lot more of an attacking threat.
That pass to set up Elliot Daly's try against Wales was a work of art. If it had been a couple of centimetres in front or behind Daly then he would have had to check his run and in all probability Wales would have stopped the try.
Yet what has really impressed me about Farrell is how much he has grown as a leader. There was a lot of focus on Eddie Jones's decision to replace Dylan Hartley after 46 minutes, but I felt it was just as significant that he had the faith in Farrell being able to lead the side from behind in the most hostile atmosphere imaginable. That is some vote of confidence, and Farrell repaid it.
With England down by five points with 10 minutes to go, Farrell did not panic or prevaricate when they were awarded a penalty. He took the points straight away. Right call made with the minimum of fuss.
There was also a telling moment when he got absolutely destroyed by a monster tackle from Ross Moriarty. It was probably slightly late as well, but Farrell did not let it bother him. He did not go seeking revenge or get all riled up like he used to. Because he has this stubborn winning mindset now, he can take that all on the chin.
Some people think that leadership leads to victories; I think victories lead to leadership. Going on the run that England have gone on you learn from your victories, you become more confident, you gain a pattern of knowing what to expect and elements you need to control that. Farrell, along with some others in that team, are starting to show that.
There is some talk about him being an outside bet for the Lions captaincy. I think that is unlikely because they will probably go with a forward, but he will still have a crucial role to play in that leadership group.
Not only is Farrell nailed on, but I think he is nailed on at first five. I know Jonathan Sexton, Dan Biggar, Finn Russell and George Ford will have their supporters, but Farrell is a better all-round first five than all of them, even if he plays with 12 on his back.
Biggar may have a kick-chase game and Ford plays closer to the line, but Farrell really has no glaring weaknesses in his game. And perhaps his greatest strength is his reliability. Pressure does not faze him and he is durable.
Now Gatland has one name on his team sheet, there are 14 others that need filling.
- The Telegraph, London