By Alan Dymock
IN THE aftermath of the Six 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 recent weeks. So in the interest of making clear what Warren Gatland, Graham Rowntree, Rob Howley and Andy Farrell face before the squad announcement on 30 April, Rugby World will sift through the runners and riders in each key position.
With the No 8s, though, there is the potential for Gatland to be harangued by fans for whatever choices he makes because there are so few options out there.
Toby Faletau was the undoubted home nations standout during the Six Nations, playing muscular rugby at the tail of the Welsh scrum. He carried strongly and could hound ball-carriers if his game remit was to defend. He had and does have the ability to play several game-types and he is in international form, even if he is bailing out water with the Dragons. He also, and for some this is very important, has a history of playing well against Australia. However, in the other clear options there is not a sense that such mass box-ticking is going on.
Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip struggled like a bug in a bathtub after being handed the country’s captaincy. He just could not keep a foothold and every time he moved forward something minor would cause him to slip back again. Chances are he will tour, but a thunderous surge of self-belief will be needed to push him to Test contention. Leinster’s assault on the Amlin Challenge Cup and RaboDirect Pro12 could help.
Beyond this pair, it is slim pickings. Ben Morgan has his fans, but while he can be lifted with Gloucester and has moments of defence-shredding brilliance in an England shirt he can fade out of games. The same could be said of Scotland’s Johnnie Beattie, who has shone amongst Montpellier’s harem of ball-runners and looked good as a counter-attacker during the Six Nations, but who faces daily questions about his ability to play the tight game.
Both men represent gambles for Gatland and it could take an impressive domestic display for one to edge ahead of the other.
Elsewhere, the campaign for left-field choices is dying down. Nick Easter and David Denton had featured in some discussion, but as the season has raged on –with Harlequins hitting a skiddy patch and Edinburgh playing terribly, as well as Denton juggling balls for Scotland – the trumpeting has been muffled. The one mouse-squeak that will not disappear is from those asking if Australia-based Gareth Delve, captain of the Melbourne Rebels, should be included.
Perhaps, though, in the interest of keeping things close-knit, versatile utility breakaways like Tom Croft and Tom Wood could be the back-up plan.
This is one area where Gatland may get creative.