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.
With the hookers it is a case of seeing who survives the latest cull as the debate between Graham Rowntree and former hooker and Head Coach, Warren Gatland sharpens.
While most would agree that Richard Hibbard was the standout hooker in the 6 Nations, former inside-centre Tom Youngs provides an exuberant carrying option and Rory Best offers an all round package to the coaches, the starting credentials of all three could be argued.
After years of falling apart at the point of most stress, a bit like a Kleenex riot shield, Hibbard’s heavily tatooed body finally seems able to cope. He is fit, firing, in-form and even able to pull through the fabled Judgment Day at the Millennium Stadium, where all the Welsh regions played under the roof.
If he is favourite to travel, though, behind him are uncertainties. In the last year Best had been the most reliable hooker in the game, landing lineout balls on needle-points and turning over in such a manner that referees could only beam at his legal efficiency. During the 6 Nations, though, he was as rattled as the rest with the way Ireland spluttered and choked.
Youngs, on the other hand, is as exciting as he is capable of looking lost. Yes, he jukes like a juiced-up energiser bunny, but he can also be caught trying too much or can be overwhelmed by occasion. Perhaps this is why the accusations of poor lineout prowess are often brought against him. He is enthusiastic and fit, but that doesn’t hide the look of a child asked to find the kumquats at the supermarket before returning to find his mother is somewhere else in the building.
Points could be pushed for Youngs to be kept as a summer back-up. Nevertheless, if form is to be rewarded all three of these men top a list.
That will disappoint Dylan Hartley, the man brought on when Youngs looked like he was suffering a fizzy head. He was there when the scrum needed shoring up or the game needed tightened. He fancies himself an enforcer, but for England he was more of the cowboy plasterer, brought in to seal up some cracks at the last minute.
It is hard to tell whether Gatland truly dislikes Hartley or is secretly a massive fan of his reactionary antics. This is where the tough choices comes in.
Elsewhere, Ross Ford is a few months of form short of going on another tour, though again back-up is about right. Ken Owens may also be talked about, with his penchant for being the explosive replacement in the loose, but he was too often Hibbard’s replacement for Wales, and recently Mathew Rees has been the go-to for a Scarlets starting berth. Of course, does Gatland consider club form away from international intensity?
Sean Cronin is the only other possible name that could be bandied about, with his dynamism and ability to support a break, but he has very, very long odds against his name.
It is almost certain that three will tour, all the others can do is cross their fingers and hope.