Every four years, the Six Nations acts as a barometer by which the incumbent British and Irish Lions coaching staff measure the mettle of the pool of sportsmen in Great Britain and Ireland deemed tough enough to take on the might of the Southern Hemisphere’s finest.
As the Northern Hemisphere’s international rugby tournament drew to a thunderous finale in Cardiff this year, there would have been be few Lions teams scrawled on notebooks and tapped into iPads by punters and fans alike, which would have remained unchanged after the first weekend of fixtures.
But, with reversals in fortune for England and Wales, a woeful campaign for Ireland and an indifferent if resilient showing from Scotland, the canvas for the majority of fantasy Lions XVs scrutinised in pubs and clubhouses across Britain will have changed in complexion from a mass of white and emerald with a hint of red to a dominant scarlet with splashes of white and green.
Heading to Australia this June, head coach Warren Gatland and his assistants Graham Rowntree, Rob Howley and Andy Farrell must select a team able to cope fast and hard Australian pitches, the quick tap-and-go counter attacking prowess of the Aussies and their gritty physicality at the breakdown.
So who are the contenders for each position and who does Gulf News think should fly the flag for the Lions Down Under this summer?
Tight-head prop: Adam Jones (WAL); Dan Cole (ENG)
Adam Jones is in the number one spot after a solid Six Nations. The prince of frizz has forced himself alongside pre-tournament favourite Dan Cole after adding a potent hand in shunting the English scrum backwards in Cardiff. But the Leicester man’s resourcefulness in the loose and flanker-like tenacity at the breakdown – something which will be invaluable Down Under where quick ball is vital for the Wallabies – could be all the ammo he needs to get on the starting sheet ahead of Jones.
Hooker: Richard Hibbard (WAL), Tom Youngs (ENG), Rory Best (IRE)
Of the three main contenders for the linchpin of the pack, Hibbard was arguably the standout performer in Six Nations campaign – he is fit and in form. A rock in defence and an attacking threat from short distances, the platinum-haired Welshman is likely to be a favourite with most. But Tom Youngs’ lively dynamism in the loose will give Gatland and Rowntree plenty to debate. The Leicester hooker’s startling big-game impact is unlike anything seen from a forward so young. But such Labrador puppy exuberance can prompt Youngs into over-zealous mistakes at the breakdown and conceding needless penalties. Rory Best’s all-round game will always see him in contention. But the disastrously malfunctioning Irish line-out earlier in the year will cast a shadow of doubt over Best’s current ability to control a pack from the front.
Loosehead prop: Cian Healy (IRE); Gethin Jenkins (WAL); Mako Vunipola (ENG); Andrew Sheridan (ENG)
Healy and Jenkins are the two front-runners. The feisty Irishman has a point to prove after a reckless sin-binning and consequent citing against England, while Jenkins captained Wales to the destruction of England. Vunipola’s explosive performances in the loose could see him stake a claim for a seat on the plane. With Gatland all but saying Brits in the French Top 14 will not be selected due to a clash in match scheduling, a resurgent Andrew Sheridan looks likely to miss out on a second Lions call-up. But Gatland will be tempted by a man with whom the Aussies have had an historically awkward time dealing.
Second rows: Paul O’Connell (IRE), Joe Launchbury (ENG), Alun Wyn Jones (WAL), Geoff Parling (ENG), Richie Gray (SCO), Jim Hamilton (SCO)
For the boys in the boiler room, it could come down to experience. And with former Lions skipper O’Connell returning with a bang to Munster colours recently, he looks odds-on to make the starting XV once again. Welshman Alun Wyn Jones has been tipped as a potential captain and no-one could argue given the Welsh lock’s imperious command of the line-out in the Six Nations – an area that was unpredictable throughout the tournament to say the least. Launchbury and Parling put in good performances for England throughout and the Scottish contingent would likely be bolstered by their star performers Gray and Hamilton. The set-piece, where second-rowers earn their keep, is a crucial battleground for securing an attacking platform or disrupting the opposition. For that reason, Gatland will need resilience on the back foot, and this is where the doggedness of Hamilton and Gray would be well suited to weathering an Aussie onslaught.
My pick: 4 – Alun Wyn Jones, 5 – Paul O’Connell
Flankers: Sam Warburton (WAL); Justin Tipuric (WAL); Chris Robshaw (ENG), Tom Wood (ENG)
When Gatland’s reveals his preferred flankers, we will know how he intends to tackle the Wallabies. Possibly the most hotly contended of all the positions, the open and blind-side flankers elected will cause a stir whichever way the selection goes. Tipuric’s devastating showing against England in Cardiff proved to the world he can comfortably outstrip wingers for pace, confound fly-halves with his handling prowess and just about any back-rower for versatility. Captain Sam’s triumphant return from injury is music to Gatland’s ears, who has not hidden his respect for the Welshman. Warburton tackled viciously, jackled at the breakdown and exploded over the gain line against England, signalling a timely return to form, almost inking him in at 7 and presenting a compelling case for the captaincy. But Robshaw is a born leader, making the English captain is Gatland’s biggest headache. The Harlequins skipper has been rarely below magnificent over the last season, even if his team mates have been grossly under par and lacking gusto. Tipuric and Warburton are arguably more talented than Robshaw, but kings of the pride are precious and seldom emerge as manifestly as Robshaw has done. And don’t forget Tom Wood – possibly the best flanker in England unfortunately dogged by injury and Robshaw’s irreplaceable figurehead persona. Sport doesn’t build character, it reveals it. And what the England Wales Six Nations decider in Cardiff revealed was that Sam Warburton is a leader born to tackle the big occasion. Even though Welsh flanker turned down the official captaincy to focus on his own game against England, his teammates still referred to the scarlet outfit as ‘Sam’s team’, And he also gets my vote for Lions’ captain.
My pick: 6 – Chris Robshaw, 7 – Sam Warburton (c)
Number 8: Toby Faletau (WAL), Jamie Heaslip (IRE), Ben Morgan (ENG), Johnnie Beattie (SCO)
Without an abundance of options at the back of the scrum, Faletau looks the most likely to assume the number 8 jersey given the high-octane, muscular game he brought to the Six Nations; the Welsh back rower is a strong carrier and physically immense hitter. His Irish counterpart Jamie Heaslip suffered the ignominy of leading Ireland to their worst Six Nations campaign in over a decade, and lost form after taking on the captaincy of the Emeralds. The Leinster man remains a classy rugby player, however. While Ben Morgan has the potential to power past defences and produce moments of sheer brilliance, he can wither and fade in games. And Johnnie Beattie, though in searing form at Montpellier, is yet to really prove himself on the big stage.
My pick: 8 – Toby Faletau
Scrum-half: Mike Phillips (WAL), Ben Youngs (ENG), Danny Care (ENG)
After feeling his way back into the international scene, Mike Phillips is well and truly back on track. The Welsh firebrand has got his temper in check, his fitness levels high and he’s looking sharper than ever around the fringes. His display against England in Cardiff proved he is a true big-match player, as he showed in South Africa four years ago. Ben Youngs is worth mention for his exuberant running, though. Having tormented the Australians at Twickenham in 2010 with a man-of-the-match performance that carved him out as England’s future star, the 23-year-old Leicester half-back will be in with a good shout of a start. Care’s intense pace and off-the-cuff style give him a match-winning unpredictability that Gatland could turn to if the Lions find themselves behind and in need of an injection of ‘go-forward’.
My pick: 9 – Mike Phillips
Fly-half: Jonny Sexton (IRE), Owen Farrell (ENG), Jonny Wilkinson (ENG)
Without an obvious choice at 10, the position is open to much debate. Sexton looks set to be the go-to fly-half. On course to be Europe’s biggest earner when he arrives in France next year, the 27-year-old Irishmen has a creative spark and notorious belligerence that could unlock the Aussie back-line. But having been hamstrung of late, needing game time in the Amlin Cup for current club side Leinster, Sexton may be some way off his best when the Aussies roll around. The immediate replacement who springs to mind, therefore, is England’s 10 Owen Farrell. The Saracens pup had looked unflappable in front of the posts throughout the Six Nations before the Welsh climax, which may suggest nerves on the grandest stages, and his fierce tackling hitting would make a certain Jonny Wilkinson proud. Farrell has shown he has the potential to throw the ball through hands with imagination and execution, but he’s prone to the formulaic every so often and still just short of being the finished article that the Lions fly-half demands. Enter the evergreen Jonny Wilkinson. Having experienced something of a renaissance at French side Toulon, the man that won England the world cup ten years ago in Australia’s backyard could be back to haunt them once again.
My pick: 10 – Jonny Sexton
Left wing: Simon Zebo (IRE), Alex Cuthbert (WAL), Chris Ashton (ENG)
Alex Cuthbert’s impressive brace against England in Cardiff in March to emphatically claim the Six Nations will put him in the driver’s seat for the left-wing berth. But a return from injury for Simon Zebo will challenge Cuthbert. They’re completely different players: Cuthbert with immense strength and power, and Zebo with football-like flair and quick dancing feet. It could come down to pairings. If Gatland opts for size and power on one wing, he could complement that with flamboyance on the other. Never rule out a chastened Chris Ashton, who who came under heavy scrutiny for a poor return in the Six Nations. His return to try-scoring form with club side Saracens augurs well for the winger from Wigan.
My pick: 11 – Alex Cuthbert
Centres: Manu Tuilagi (ENG), Brian O’Driscoll (IRE), Jamie Roberts (WAL)
Questions about Tuilagi’s mercurial nature will arise. But his demolition act against unbeaten world champions New Zealand in the autumn renders him a must. And his proven capacity to perform in the southern climes, as he proved by flattening South African counterpart Jean de Villiers in his debut season bodes well. If O’Driscoll is mentally and physically fit, he is another shoe-in. Experience and dynamism in attack belying his advanced years, the Irish stalwart is crucial to any Lions team. The dilemma for Gatland will be if Tuilagi and O’Driscoll can play in the centres together, with both preferring the 13 shirt over the 12. For that reason, Roberts, who partnered ‘BOD’ on Lions duty in South Africa in 2009, and who was awarded the player of the series accolade in the rainbow nation, could get the nod over the inexperienced Samoan bulldozer.
My pick: 12 - Manu Tuilagi, 13 - Brian O’Driscoll
Right wing: George North (WAL), Christian Wade (ENG), Tommy Bowe (IRE)
There are always “bolters” on Lions tours: Uncapped players that make a late claim for a place, or who are picked out by the coach as possessing something special that has gone previously unrecognised. London Wasps flyer Christian Wade certainly falls into that category. The diminutive winger may not possess the imposing physicality of those he is in competition with, but with twinkle toes and pace to burn – like previous Lions Jason Robinson and Shane Williams – he can turn a game on its head and strike fear into even the most experienced defences as he showed against Irish giants Leinster. George North is the obvious choice, especially if Cuthbert is selected on the other wing: the two Welsh wingers combine well and finish clinically. A returning Tommy Bowe should never be ruled out. The Irishman’s success in a Lions jersey would make him a valued candidate even if only half-fit.
My pick: 14 – Christian Wade
Full-back: Leigh Halfpenny (WAL), Stuart Hogg (SCO), Ben Foden (ENG) Alex Goode (ENG)
Halfpenny’s hefty and reliable right boot from the penalty spot is enough to give him an edge over the rest at 15. Though he may not break the line as often as Hogg and Foden might, his sound tackling and tactical positioning won him many plaudits in the winter, and given the chance he can comfortably show a clean pair of heels to anyone. The Scotsman Hogg is an undoubted talent and an attacking menace. But flimsy tackles against France and mistakes under the high ball place question marks over his suitability for Australia, where he will get a lot of tests in both situations. Ben Foden, although out of favour with England, won’t be overlooked by Gatland and Farrell. The Northampton full-back is explosive going forwards and stoic in defence. Foden’s English replacement for the Six Nations, Goode, is versatile enough to warrant a utility backs place in the travelling squad.
My pick: 15 – Leigh Halfpenny