Lions 2013: Owen Farrell & Ben Youngs stake Lions claims

 

If Warren Gatland was enthused by what he saw in the opening round of Six Nations matches, the second instalment gave the Lions head coach plenty more causes for optimism.

Strong candidates are thrusting forward from all four home nations. And in pivotal positions too.

None more so than fly-half, where Ireland's Jonny Sexton has long looked nailed on for the Lions Test jersey.

Owen Farrell

Six Nations Spotlight - Owen Farrell

The Dubliner - who was forced off before half-time at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday with a hamstring injury - may still be the favourite, but the challenge from Owen Farrell grows by the week.

The maturity the 21-year-old displayed in guiding his side around the park, bringing control to England's game as well as nailing four vital kicks in difficult conditions, had the BBC's pundits purring.

"He is the iceman, there is an edge about him," said former England and Lions centre Jeremy Guscott. "It is not cockiness but confidence. He likes to get amongst it. He is a bit more in-your-face than Jonny Wilkinson, who was more measured, but the end result is about the same."

Wales fly-half legend Jonathan Davies, while admiring Farrell's "phenomenal" goal-kicking, also praised his use of the boot in other areas. "His variety of kicking in open play was very good. Everything he did allowed England to be competitive for the ball and keep the pressure on Ireland."

Farrell's half-back partner Ben Youngs also chose a good time to stamp his authority on proceedings, after the versatile Greig Laidlaw turned in a man-of-the-match display for Scotland against Italy.

Scotland coach Scott Johnson called Laidlaw "a wonderful technician - his mind works in a different place to others".

But former Scotland scrum-half Andy Nicol admitted: "I was really impressed with Youngs. The control and variety to his game was very good, and he almost created a try for Manu Tuilagi.

"It is very rare you see scrum-halves play the full game these days. It is testament to how much control England had at half-back. Youngs really put down a marker for the Lions. He is in the box seat now."

If Youngs took a big step forward in a position without a stand-out candidate, the competition at full-back gets tastier by the week.

Matthew Scott runs in the second Scotland try

Six Nations 2013 : Scotland 34-10 Italy

Scotland's Stuart Hogg had already confirmed his burgeoning potential at Twickenham, and his stunning solo try against Italy only heightened the excitement currently surrounding a player who is a distant relative of the late, great George Best.  

"He is just an out-and-out paceman and opportunist," said Chris Paterson, whose old full-back position Hogg looks set to occupy for some time.

His chances of wearing Lions red though are by no means certain. Leigh Halfpenny earned another man-of-the-match gong after a faultless kicking display and some incisive attacking interventions in Wales' 16-6 win over France in Paris.

On another day, England's Alex Goode might have taken the individual honours after a display of tremendous composure under pressure in difficult conditions in Dublin, overshadowing another strong Lions contender, Rob Kearney.

"Goode made one error when he went up for a high ball but, apart from that, he took every single ball, every single kick, and it was a 9/10 performance," noted Guscott.

As it was, England captain Chris Robshaw won the award in Dublin after another tireless display of tackling, carrying, taking kick-offs and generally making all the right calls.

Gatland appeared to offer hope to the flanker this week when he said Robshaw "has reinvented himself"  in terms of his work at the breakdown.

But the debate over Robshaw's Lions suitability appears to be less about his form, than the specific requirements the tourists will need to stifle the threat of Australia's master breakdown bandit David Pocock.

"The question is whether he [Robshaw] can nullify Pocock,"said Guscott. "If Gatland feels Justin Tipuric or Sam Warburton is more suited to that job, then he won't pick him."

Tipuric certainly justified the calls for his promotion to the Welsh starting line-up with a strong outing in Paris, where he was Wales' joint-top tackler and their leading line-out target.

George North celebrates try against France

Highlights: France 6-16 Wales

Team-mate George North also underlined his status as a Lions Test wing-in-waiting with a superb 12th try for his country, expertly taking the chance offered up by Dan Biggar's perfectly-judged chip.

"You can't under-estimate how good that was," said former England and Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward, observing the game for the BBC. "It was an awesome finish which showed incredible awareness, and that is why he is the Lions Test winger for me."

While North confirmed his match-winning ability, other players with Lions ambitions will not look back on this weekend with such fondness.

Jamie Heaslip, the Lions number eight in South Africa, had a day to forget in Dublin.

The Ireland captain dropped two routine high balls with "poor technique" - according to former Ireland flanker Phillip Matthews - as well as conceding two penalties for ruck offences.

England wing Chris Ashton runs at the Ireland defence

Six Nations 2013 : Highlights: Ireland 6-12 England

Prop Cian Healy's loss of discipline in such an intense encounter, with emotions running high, will also not have escaped Gatland's notice. A potential ban for the ugly-looking stamp on Dan Cole's ankle, and a swinging arm in another incident, were not the best advert for a would-be Test Lion, even if his scrummaging ability caused Cole problems at times.

"Healy should know better," Guscott added. "He is a multi-capped international and he just let frustration get the better of him."

While Joe Marler impressed on England's loose-head, another prop to re-state his case this weekend was Scotland tight-head Euan Murray. Any player who can dilute the threat of Italy's scrum and still find the energy to jointly top the tackle count with 15 must be worth consideration.