By Alan Dymock
THE BRITISH and Irish Lions are still hotter than a Justin Bieber and David Beckham collaborative calendar. Need proof? Every single test ticket for this summer’s tour sold out in 15 minutes. People are tearing their hair out, trying to find a seat.
The powers that be Down Under have promised a spectacle to rival the 2003 Rugby World Cup and the omens are good. All we need now is a test side capable of doing the job. So who, on current form, goes?
15. Stuart Hogg Holding off the challenges of Rob Kearney and Alex Goode, the top try scorer in the RBS 6 Nations is also the man who has made the most yards with the ball, jetting over 201m with ball in hand. He is exciting and thriving in the intensity of the competition.
14. Leigh Halfpenny He has been too consistent, too brave, and too darn good to miss out. He reverts to the wing so as to make way for Hogg, but in tandem this pair could evade most clutching defenders. Halfpenny is also a top-quality Test kicker, especially from distance.
13. Brian O’Driscoll Here at Rugby World we have taken to calling him ‘Lion’ O’Driscoll. He is that good. Okay, he failed to skip out of trouble against England, but he is so bombastic in defence and so creative in attack that it would be insanity to deny BOD his Lions swansong in Australia.
12. Jamie Roberts The man is human glue. He perhaps offers less turnover potential when compared to Brad Barritt and less open field flourishes than Billy Twelvetrees – even less bash and smash than Manu Tuilagi – but he is starting and lasting the distance for Wales and he can offer all of these things. He also has a fine understanding with LOD (Lion O’Driscoll).
11. Mike Brown The fans of George North must be made aware that this is the toughest selection. North finished with so much aplomb against France that even his father felt it necessary to storm the turf, and he is capable of that even if he has drifted in and out of a game.
Yet Brown has been Mr. Consistent. He has made more line breaks than anyone else in the 6 Nations. He has covered more yards with the ball than anyone else, bar Hogg. He is watertight under the high ball and the man the Lions could use to run the Aussies in circles before North comes on to blast through them.
10. Owen Farrell With Sexton crocked and few others offering a sensible, stable alternative, it is the hour of the Iceman. He is cooler than a liquid nitrogen fondue and just as dangerous. A certainty to tour, and probable to start?
9. Ben Youngs The scrum-half’s biggest threat comes from his teammate Danny Care, who scored an absolute belter for Harlequins at the weekend. However, he is likely to be retained for his balance and understanding with Farrell, this week, and it is a burgeoning partnership the Lions could benefit from. Mike Phillips broods in the background, for now.
1. Cian Healy Ok, so he is the rugby doghouse right now. He is was a very naughty boy and we all feel his ban could and perhaps should have been longer.
Nevertheless, he is the top tackler in the 6 Nations and gave Dan Cole hell in the scrum. He is merely allowing others to attempt to stake a claim, but it would be foolish to suggest he is not Warren Gatland’s front runner.
2. Rory Best It must be a lot of pressure having so many houses banked on you, but that does not seem to phase the redoubtable Best. No other British and Irish hooker has his lineout accuracy and his defensive work always impresses.
3. Dan Cole The tight-head was not at his brutish best against Ireland, but he made up for that by slowing ball and rucking like a demon. It seems that Euan Murray has decided to stake a serious claim for the 3 jersey, having made a mind-boggling 15 tackles against Italy in Round 2. Oh, and then there’s some bloke called, Adam Jones. A position of strength for the Lions.
4. Joe Launchbury The young rocket is gathering support. He may have been shelf-stacking at Sainsbury’s a matter of year ago but he is full of potential, game for a scrap and willing to do anything that is asked of him. In a championship where few second-rows are dominating totally, he is doing his bit.
5. Donnacha Ryan As interchangeable as the wingers are, this position is hard if only because so many have so much to prove. Ryan has done well and is a lineout presence, but one of Richie Gray, Geoff Parling, Andrew Coombs and Ian Evans could declare an interest, and Mike McCarthy and Alun Wyn Jones could figure in the near future.
The vital grafter in the scrum and a lineout option, the No 5 needs to be someone able to do it all, quietly and uncompromisingly.
6. Kelly Brown Want quiet and aggressive? Brown has done the captain’s role well for Scotland. Similar to Ryan Jones in the leadership stakes, he will do whatever it takes to succeed. That is one of the reasons he is so highly rated at Saracens.
Dan Lydiate is still on the comeback trail and Sean O’Brien certainly has the power for No 6, but your blindside needs to be a clunky old-engine that has the sole mission of knocking out Australia’s groundhogs, rather than looking at the ball themselves.
7. Chris Robshaw It may pain many naysayers, but Robshaw is having a hugely impressive 6 Nations. He carries, tackles and links, makes no fuss, and shows that your No 7 does not have to fit the scavenging stereotype. After all, against Australia you do not have to match a jackal with a jackal; you just have to keep the ball.
He and a punchy blindside can do that for you. Unless Warburton or Justin Tipuric can set some fires Robshaw has a shout.
I, like many, am coming around to the idea.
8. Toby Faletau Young Toby was supreme against France and probably Wales’ best player against Ireland. He is edging it, with Jamie Heaslip struggling with captaincy, Ben Morgan injured, Tom Wood too versatile to settle and Johnnie Beattie needing to maintain his form for a whole championship to get into contention.
Can Faletau hold onto the jersey?