London - The Six Nations returns this week to begin its
rapid run towards a climax, with the contest for British and Irish Lions tour
places sure to provide plenty of compelling sub-plots.
In just over a month's time, Lions coach Warren Gatland will
announce a squad that he hopes will feature the very best players from England,
Scotland, Ireland and Wales for the three-Test series against his native New
Zealand in June and July.
Of the three countries the Lions tour every four years
(South Africa and Australia are the others), it is New Zealand that is
considered the acid test for the combined side.
They have won just one series in New Zealand, in 1971, and
the fact that the victorious players from that campaign - JPR Williams, Gerald
Davies, Mike Gibson, Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Willie John McBride and Ian
McLauchlan to name a few - are still revered more than 45 years later shows that
sporting immortality lies in wait for this year's Lions if they can upset the
odds and beat the reigning world champions.
The final two weeks of the Six Nations represent the final
proving ground for Lions hopefuls and the tournament offers Gatland the chance
to witness a number of head-to-head contests between potential tour rivals.
Perhaps the most eye-catching duel in the opening
fourth-round match in Cardiff on Friday will involve Wales's Rhys Webb and
Ireland's Conor Murray, widely regarded as the two best scrum-halves currently
available to Gatland.
Murray, 27, already knows what it is to be a Lion, having
featured in the successful 2013 series in Australia alongside Ireland half-back
partner Jonathan Sexton, also tipped to feature against the All Blacks.
The half-back pair know what it means to beat New Zealand,
having been involved when Ireland ended their 111-year wait for a maiden win
over the All Blacks with a 40-29 success in Chicago in November.
And yet the fit-again Webb has clearly added a new snap to
Wales's back division and was arguably their best player in a 29-13 loss to
Scotland at Murrayfield.
Just as British politicians who want to become Prime
Minister routinely disclaim all interest in the job until the last practical
moment, so too do Lions candidates say they their focus is solely on the next
game rather than selection for the multi-national side.
Certainly if Webb delivers an on-field performance to equal
his pre-match comments, it will be a master class.
"I am not one to get too caught up in individual
battles," Webb said.
"He (Murray) and Sexton are a big part of the Irish
team. They have a good kicking game which we have to be aware of and apply lots
of pressure to them.
"There will be a lot of focus on the nine (scrumhalf)
battle, but that is for you (media) and spectators."
England, looking to equal New Zealand's record of 18
successive Test wins by defeating old rivals Scotland at Twickenham on
Saturday, are sure to boast a strong Lions contingent of their own.
But it says much about Scotland's revival under Kiwi coach
Vern Cotter, which includes wins over Ireland and Wales already this Six
Nations, that both fullback Stuart Hogg and lock Jonny Gray are widely tipped for
Lions' selection - and not just to make up the numbers.
Scotland, for all their recent progress however, have not
won at Twickenham since 1983.
As for the tournament itself, if Wales beat Ireland and
England see off Scotland, then defending champions England will have all but
retained their title, although bonus point considerations, a new factor this
season, could yet delay a trophy presentation until the tournament finale on
This week's other Six Nations match sees Italy at home to
France on Saturday, with both the Azzurri and Les Bleus looking to bounce back
from defeats by England and Ireland respectively.