By Alan Dymock
IN THE aftermath of the 6 Nations and with time running out we are all confronted with the starkest of choices: who are our Lions?
An obvious point of conjecture, there were at least some standouts in recents weeks. So in the interest of making clear what Warren Gatland, Graham Rowntree, Rob Howley and Andy Farrell face before the squad announcement on April 30, Rugby World will sift through the runners and riders in each key position.
First up will be the PROPS, those noble beasts scorching their busts at the coalface.
Undoubtedly everyone is enamoured with the frizzy king of scrum play, Adam Jones, who set about dismantling the French and English scrums on his and Wales’ way to a second consecutive Championship victory. In doing so the tight-head pushed his way past everyone’s pre-tournament favourite for the Lions starting spot, Dan Cole.
It is strongly expected that both men will tour. However, in looking for other guaranteed tight-side tourists it gets a little harder. The scrum proved an issue during recent international meetings – the most penalised individuals during the championship were the front-rowers after some scrum shenanigans – but despite the relatively high whistle-rate against Jones and Cole, the former has dominated a tournament and the latter is capable of doing so should he be in the right frame of mind and coaxed into it by his teammates.
With scrummaging there can be a case of hoping lightning will strike, with only an elite band of rumblers being able to boast impeccable technique at any point of asking. In the past this was said of Euan Murray, the Scot was touch-and-go during the 6 Nations but his unwillingness to play during Sundays for religious reasons makes no difference as none of the games take place on the Sabbath. However, in looking for support players on the right of the scrum the Worcester Warrior could be on a list of ‘maybes’ with Ireland’s Mike Ross.
On the loose-head side, matters wil come down to Rowntree and Gatland’s personal choice. It has been put forward that, like the two standout loose-heads, Cian Healy of Ireland and Gethin Jenkins of Wales are the front-runners. However, this is less clear-cut, and with the consistency of Ryan Grant earning recognition and with the explosive showings in the loose by Mako Vunipola making headlines of late, plus Paul James’ consistency and ability to play on either side of the scrum, there are calls around the Isles for each man’s inclusion.
For selectors, they have a tough task picking their number 1s.
Much will be made of the bankability of the touring tight-heads and, with the current popular interpretation at scrum time, either of Jones or Cole are capable of avoiding being popped up with proper second-row support and both are strong and technical enough to render an early hit unnecessary. So if the unity of the pack is to be expected with any Rowntree team and with the assumption being that such a team could cut their feet and drive through their right hand side, it is left up to the loose-head to be a disruptive force.
Healy showed against England that he can perform such a role and Jenkins is more reliable than Pulp Fiction’s Mr Wolf, but are the other two capable of niggling the opposition as well as ensuring that they do not split from their hooker?
In Super Rugby tight-heads Paddy Ryan of the Waratahs has performed quite well of late, as has Dan Palmer of the Brumbies. Both only have one cap to their names, though, and if it is assumed that Ben Alexander’s good showings as a loose-head in the competition means the Brumbie won’t be used as a tight-head, and because Sekope Kepu is being kept out by Ryan, it must be asked if a bully should be brought in to dominate such players.
There is an awful lot of assumption with any such question, but because of the possible inference exiled Englishman Andrew Sheridan of Top 14 leaders Toulon must be one consideration. Of course, if we start this, maybe even Saracens’ Matt Stevens comes into the mix at tight-head, despite being retired from England duty.
At least there are infinite options, eh?