Rugby Union

Would this British side be able to conquer the southern hemisphere?

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In the wake of the northern hemisphere implosion that was the Rugby World Cup quarter-final, the question is rightly being asked: is the gap between the rugby hemispheres widening again?

The north won the most recent Lions tour, Ireland have had an undefeated autumn series, England and Wales both have recent wins over southern hemisphere sides - it seemed like the World Cup would never be so evenly fought.

Instead, we have ended up with a clean sweep for the southern giants. The World Cup is just about the mid-point between the Lions Tours, so home nations fans should be glad there are two years to prepare for New Zealand 2017.


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Something that may work in the Lions' favour is the fact that New Zealand may well be in a state of transition. Dan Carter and Richie McCaw won't be part of the All Black set-up, and there's a chance players like Conrad Smith, Owen Franks, Jerome Kaino and others may no longer be there, or at least, on the wane.

But relying on changes in the ranks won't do, against the foremost rugby nation on earth; the home nations will have to bring some serious firepower.

Rugby can change unrecognisably in two short years, but if the first test was tomorrow which players would make the cut following a disappointing World Cup? And more importantly, how do they shape up against the best in the World?

Cian Healey

The Irish scrum is arguably the strongest of the home nations at this point in time. And they have arguably the two best looseheads in their ranks. Cian has long been one of the most destructive props around the park, and keeping Jack McGrath on the bench is an achievement in itself.

We have seen the importance of big ball carriers and strong ruckers, with this man ticking both boxes. He is one of the few northern hemisphere players frequently in World XV contention.

Rory Best

The Irish hooker seems to have hot and cold periods in both his throwing and overall form, but in 2015 he has been excellent. Ireland had the best lineout stats in the competition until their quarter-final defeat, and even in that game Best still stood out. He attacked every single breakdown effectively in the absence of their two first choice flankers.

Again, this is a position where Ireland have strength with wrecking balls Richardt Strauss and James Cronin waiting in the wings. It is also a position where England and Wales have struggled for consistency for varying reasons. Scotland's George Ford would be pushing hard for this spot.

Willem Nel

The South African-born Scot has been a revelation in the World Cup, both as a starter and off the bench. He has established him scrummaging credentials against the vaunted Scott Sio, demolishing the Australian's new weapon to keep Scotland's penalty opportunities ticking.

He has also proven himself very dangerous at close range on a number of occasions, and at this moment in time is probably the first name on the team sheet.

Iain Henderson

It is Henderson's time. Ireland may be out of the World Cup, but the young lock has looked impressive along the way. Let's be honest, if it wasn't Paul O'Connell, Henderson would have started every match. He is probably an even better player than the Munster legend, he just simply hasn't been as crucial to the effort for so long.

That is set to change as he develops as a player. He is the modern breed of second row who can do everything well. Like Courtney Lawes, he is massively physical, but he is much better ball carrier than the athletic Saint. He has been in red hot form and in Lawes, Ireland's loss of Paul O'Connell won't sting nearly as bad as it might have done.

Alun Wyn Jones

It's crazy to think that Jones is only 30. He seems to have been plying his trade for so long it's easy to forget he still has a couple of years in him. He may well make the tour to New Zealand. He was outstanding in Australia and he simply hasn't stopped.

He never has a bad match and never an average match. He is a colossus, every time he takes to the field with a work rate that few players worldwide can match. He is a constant performer and inspiration, much like his aforementioned Irish rival.

Sean O'Brien

His absence was a major reason Ireland couldn't quite complete the comeback that looked likely against Argentina. When they needed ball carriers they seemed to be short on options and when in need of breakdown brutality they didn't quite compete. Sean O'Brien is one of the most influential players in any team. He is a World XV player and simply must be included in any back row for which he is eligible.

He can do a job at seven or eight as well, which makes him valuable to the squad as he is a monstrous carrier, and hugely strong over the ball. In the modern game where turnovers are so vital, having two accomplished opensides is a popular and effective tactic.

Sam Warburton

Completing the balance of the flank is the Welsh and former Lions' captain. Less of a ball player than O'Brien, he is a match for anyone on the ground. Against South Africa even the likes of Bismarck Du Plessis, Schalk Burger, and Francois Louw couldn't stop Warburton from grabbing some spectacular turnovers.

In the tackle, he is phenomenally strong and never loses the collision. He is another influential leader in any group, but his injury rate may prevent him from being captain next time round.

Jamie Heaslip

This was the closest call so far as there are some excellent young players at eight in England and Scotland, but the front runners are the Welsh and Irish incumbents. Taulupe Faletau is probably the more athletic of the two, and may edge Heaslip on work rate, but the Irishman gets the nod for his inspiration factor.

Heaslip is one of those players that can change the momentum of a game with a big hit or a clean break. He was a major part of the effort that dragged Ireland back into the game against the Pumas by smashing Pablo Montero who had been rampant until that point. He has fantastic control at the base and a strong connection with Connor Murray which earns him the starting shirt.

Connor Murray

Murray is one of the best scrum-halfs in the game right now, and on a consistent basis controls the flow of the game for his side. There may be quicker players to choose but none who have the kicking ability and game awareness of the Irishman. He is also big and powerful which makes him a danger at the fringes and solid in the defensive line.

Dan Biggar

If I were genuinely picking a team to run out tomorrow I would be hard pushed to ignore Johnny Sexton, who is the long-time best fly-half in the northern hemisphere. But like Warren Gatland two years ago, I have decided to go with form and there are few who have matched Dan Biggar in recent times.

His goal kicking has made the loss of Leigh Halfpenny an afterthought, and his array of skills brought Wales to the brink of an unlikely semi-final.

It is too early to be calling him an all-time great as some people have already declared, but he has been the standout performer for Wales under the most intense pressure. Where there was controversy over the ten shirt, there is now none as he has made it his own for the foreseeable future.

Finn Russell is an underrated option who has been key to igniting the Scottish backline, but on big game experience and goal kicking, the Welshman takes it.

George North

Another fairly easy call sees the giant North come in after an impressive World Cup and simply put, a career of domination. The image of him carrying Israel Folau was the most memorable of any Lions tour for years; not to mention his individual score being one of the best of all time.

He is a proven finisher and his rare combination of pace and power makes him a shoe in. He will be on the next tour barring injury, and despite being only 23 will be getting somewhere near 100 caps by the time it comes around.

Jamie Roberts

Safe to say there isn't a depth of talent here. Both England and Scotland have had issues in this position for years, and Ireland and Wales don't have much in the way of backup. Robbie Henshaw is a very impressive player, but his credentials don't match the two-time Lions' tourist Roberts.

He is one of the hardest midfield runners in World Rugby and is someone who is infinitely useful to have in your backline. Too often the Home Nations don't have anyone to turn to when they need to get over the gain line. There is a chance we will see Manu Tuilagi fill this role for England before too long, but as of right now there is no one close to Roberts in this department.

He is often underrated for his soft hands which will be on display this season as part of Harlequins offloading game.

Jonathan Joseph

Completing a balanced centre partnership is the England standout JJ. For a year now he has been England's most potent threat in attack. Defences know that he is the threat, but his footwork and turn of pace is something not many have been able to prevent as yet.

He constantly has the ball in two hands which means defenders don't drift off him and he causes problems every time he gets the ball.

He is likely to be the player England rebuild their backline around, and given his very low error count he will have plenty of international experience before long. As of right now, he has been the form player in a torrid World Cup campaign for the hosts, and will continue doing a job for Bath.

Tommy Bowe

Another two-time tourist fills the other wing spot despite some serious young talent. Anthony Watson and Jonny May have both shown their considerable threats in recent times, but the Irishman is the more complete player.

Huge experience sees him play an important part of Ireland's attacking game as a lethal picker of lines, powerful runner, and high ball expert.

Many exciting wingers have defensive queries by their name, but that's not the case with Bowe. Against southern hemisphere opposition, the likes of Julian Savea, or Waisake Naholo won't be matched for physicality, but at least the Irishman might be able to contain them.

Mike Brown

Only the second Englishman in the lineup gets the nod in arguably the most competitive position. Anyone you pick can do a job when you look at Ron Kearney, Simon Zebo, Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg... the list goes on. But few full-backs in World Rugby are as consistently outstanding as Mike Brown. He has been England's best player when fit for a number of years and seems to get even better on the big occasion.

Critics will cite his temperament, but the results show he's learned discipline and self-control on the pitch. Too often sportsmen are blamed for being boring, and not showing enough passion, but that is never the case here. It's no bad thing to have a player who gets fiery and under the skin of the opposition. That kind of niggle can be very influential in a tour as emotional as the Lions, and Brown thrives upon it like no one else.

Bench: Jack McGrath, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Toby Faletau, Grieg Laidlaw, Jonny Sexton, Stuart Hogg.

For me, there is no question that this side could win a Lions tour in New Zealand. The problem with the northern hemisphere teams is that when they are strong at one aspect, they lose out in another.

England picked a mobile pack, that couldn't get over the gain line or win the breakdown. Ireland came undone when injuries meant the same.

Wales didn't have the cutting edge behind the scrum to pose enough of a total threat, and struggled at scrum time, but were exceptional at turning over South African ball and nullifying their threats.

The team I have picked here is a strong scrum with good lineout options. It has a back row that might be the most destructive in World Rugby when they come together. Half-backs who can dictate field position, and put players through gaps. Plus a midfield with the balance to go through you or around you, or ship it wide to X-factor on the wing, and a full-back who always makes yards, and is a rock from the back.

The bench has impact all over with ball carriers and scrummagers throughout, and experienced half backs who can change a game or see one out.

For me, every player on this list is in the conversation for World XV, and only exceptional circumstances preclude them. Maybe the problem isn't with northern hemisphere rugby as whole, but the individual nations being unable to put it all together as yet.

Compared with the southern hemisphere, there isn't the strength across the board, but there are building blocks in every team that can be developed. In two years many of these players will still be around and will likely be ready to challenge the southern dominance.

Is the quality of British rugby players strong enough to pose a threat to the southern hemisphere nations? Give your opinion in the comment box below! 

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