The British & Irish Lions are coming and it is time that we turn our minds to the players who will be visiting us. There are still three rounds of the RBS Six Nations to be played and they will have a significant impact on selection decisions. But whom would Lions coach Warren Gatland chose now, as it stands?
We have to make some assumptions first. How many will be in the squad? How many players will be taken for each position. What about players who are currently injured?
Let’s assume that they will choose 37 players as they did initially for the last tour in 2009. But let’s also suppose that they choose 21 forwards and 16 backs instead of 20/17 as they did for South Africa.
In my squad I have paid no regard to how many players, or how few, have been chosen from any country.
Leigh Halfpenny is arguably the best fullback in Europe now as both a custodian and attacking player. His national team is going through a rough patch with their rush defence and big bopper set-piece attacks, but he gives them calmness at the back and lightning on the move forward. He is not afraid to put his body on the line on defence either. He is also the best goal kicking fullback in Europe and even if the Lions’ flyhalves take most of the kicks at goal on tour, he will take the long ones.
Rob Kearney is a similar player to Halfpenny and like him is a master under the high ball. His experience on the last Lions’ tour will be well-regarded but as it stands he is behind Halfpenny. He has played only six games this season and missed the Autumn Tests. And unlike Halfpenny he is not a goal kicker.
Missing out: It may be a year or two early for the Cullen-like Scot, Stuart Hogg, who has all the attributes of an elite fullback including a long punt. Mike Brown is also unlucky.
Tommie Bowe (right wing) almost had his ticket for the plane but he damaged a knee just before Christmas and will be lucky to get back on the park in time to prove himself to the selectors. But he has all the attributes of a Lions’ winger, as he proved in 2009, and is one player I would take an injury punt on.
George North (left wing) is a big mother who can step and run over folks too. He is included because he is a better footie player than other big wingers, such as Visser and Cuthbert, and will thrive in a Lions’ environment.
Chris Ashton (right wing) was been out of sorts this season at his new club, Saracens, but he’s got his mojo back and is annoying as ever, scoring tries with his swan dive.
Simon Zebo (left wing) has a whiff of Jason Robinson about him and like him can produce brilliancies regularly without compromising team play. If he overcomes his recent foot injury his exuberance could make him a star of the Lions tour and result in his being popular with Aussies and visitors alike. The Lions usually don’t pick a lot of inexperienced test players to tour but he could be the exception.
Missing out: Alex Cuthbert has lost ground this year and Warren Gatland would not have liked his defensive game against Ireland recently. If Bowe can’t tour though, he could take his right wing spot. If Zebo can’t tour, Visser could take his left wing position. As with some other form players: it is probably a year too early to consider Craig Gilroy, but watch this space.
Brian O’Driscoll does not have the pace that he had in 2001 when he ran though the Wallabies team to score in the first Lions Test, but the player of the decade is still the puppet master. His ball work and what he does before he gets the pill are arguably better than they ever were. He is injury-prone these days but he will be put on the plane to Australia.
Manu Tuilagi surprised the rugby world when he humiliated a few notable All Blacks in the Autumn Test. It is all very well to know what he is going to do but stopping him is another matter. You wouldn’t want Tuilagi paired with Roberts in a Test match however, as they are similar players; nor is he an ideal inside centre because he is not a distributor. The yin and yang of the midfield is going to be an interesting problem for coach Gatland
Jamie Roberts was the Lions player of the series in 2009 in South Africa but he hasn’t been the same force since. He’s found it difficult this season coming back from the surgery that kept him out of the Wales tour to Australia last year, but has done enough in the two rounds of Six Nations to show that he is on his way back.
Missing out: Jonathan Davies has lost ground this year and had a poor game against Ireland recently. Brad Barritt, the stepping hard man, is unlucky but he does not have utility value; nor does Roberts, and Gatland would be reluctant to have two such players in the midfield.