By Al Dymock
LIKE WINSTON CHURCHILL riding a T-Rex through the season finale of Downton Abbey whilst singing a Mumford and Sons number, the autumn Internationals came to a rousing crescendo.
Logic be damned: England had toppled the All Blacks at the same time as Australia claimed a third victory on their end-of-season tour. All at once you were at pains to think of anything other than the Lions tour.
The Australians were diving back under the equator with surprisingly brusque wins against England and Wales while the swinging chariot was crushing Kiwis. It was beautiful in its absurdity because for one manic minute everyone thought of England as the boundless inventors and as Australia as the stuffy win thieves.
Tickets for the Six Nations should sell out quicker than Peter Andre on the phone to a TV executive. However, before that, it is the English and Irish resurgence and the cataclysmic collapse of Scotland and Wales which will be on Warren Gatland’s mind.
Who stood up during the autumn Internationals and consistently said: “I am a Lion”?
15. Leigh Halfpenny His bravery almost got him seriously hurt against Australia in the last game of the series, but his consistency has seen him out in front of all the other candidates this autumn.
14. Chris Ashton In truth picking him is a gamble. It is a gamble, however, that would get under the skin of the Australians. They would target him; get distressed by him. He might even score like he did against the All Blacks.
13. Manu Tuilagi The Twickenham faithful were treated to an imperious display by Tuilagi as he slipped into 13 against New Zealand. He was brutal in his efficiency. Four tries in four autumn Internationals can’t be ignored, either. Of course if O’Driscoll gets fit, he slips to 12…
12. Brad Barritt For all Tuilagi’s explosive adventure, he sometimes needs a minder. Barritt may not be the most exciting player, but his defence is solid and he guides Manu through. Until Jamie Roberts can prove he is up to it, BB is an option.
11. Craig Gilroy This may be flavour of the month, but his impact has been one to savour. Even Gatland says he’s on his mind. He is quick, if a little nervy.
10. Jonathan Sexton He may not be up for the IRB Player of the Year award, but his consistency and performance against Argentina sees him above the rest. You’re more assured of what you’re getting than if you picked Owen Farrell.
9. Mike Phillips Much improved and still physical, but he is picked because there is nothing you can set your watch by elsewhere. There are options in England and with Conor Murray, but Gatland will be worried about who he can rely on for a whole tour.
1. Ryan Grant The only player to shine for Scotland, Grant carried well and tackled brilliantly while his team-mates were sitting on their backsides feeling sorry for themselves. Not just a one game wonder.
2. Richardt Strauss Okay, so he isn’t the most physical or the silkiest, but Strauss has grown on me. His arrows are better than the rest and he knows winning like the back of his hand, thanks to time at Leinster. This is Gatland’s danger position.
3. Dan Cole He is so lovely and nice and scrum savvy that I want to recite poetry to the big fella. Oh Danny C, you’ve won a fan in me. When you’re bruising All Black props, I feel my heart fall through my socks.
4. Joe Launchbury A loveable scamp, young Joe. He pedals about without a care in the world, handing folk off and nicking lineouts. His work-rate and potential could be utilised. He could be going vertical.
5. Richie Gray His quality and level of industry have him in here, but he needs confidence and some big games if he’s to make the team in real life.
6. Chris Robshaw Forget blunders; forget the number on his back. Look at what he offers. Tackling and rucking as he does may shave years off his life but he is helping destroy opposition.
7. Sam Warburton The talent is there. What Sammy needs is pressure lifted so he can play with freedom. If there are leaders in the back row with him he can focus on the task at hand and forget about having to apologise for the squad all the time.
8. Jamie Heaslip Earmarked as a potential skipper, Heaslip is a rounded player who loves to get near the try-line. With big beasts in front of him he can damage anyone and he is maturing to a stage where he can bark orders at those beasts.
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