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 runners and riders in each key position.
One of which, that of the wingers, must scare the life out of the bookmakers.
In this position more than any other there is scope for Gatland to throw caution in front of an industrial fan and scatter his thoughts. Yes, of course, there are the dual threats of George North and Alex Cuthbert of Wales who are both potent, expeditious and fond of a dot down. Nevertheless, without the bankable pair there is a fine opportunity for a curve ball, with Australia likely to be spooked or confused by the names pulled out of a hat by the selection committee.
The Wallabies are well aware of Chris Ashton and Tommy Bowe. They have seen Ashton at his best – burning through the Australian defence like a tenner in teenagers pocket in 2010 – but they have also seen him at his worst in their recent jaunt north. Selecting him would represent somewhat of a leap of faith, while Bowe, who was part of the Ireland team that beat Australia at the 2011 World Cup, is not long off the physio table, but has made an eye-catching return with two tries in three appearances.
So if that skip were to turn into a leap of faith for those players not so familiar to the Australians it must be considered that some internationals who have played well in the last few seasons have never played Australia.
Tim Visser, for example, was in the crowd the day that Scotland beat the Wallabies in Newcastle in 2012, having been just shy of the day when he qualified to play in dark blue. He is now a must-pick winger. On the opposite wing for Scotland is also Sean Maitland, who impressed in his first season in the 6 Nations. Australians have seen him play for the Canterbury Crusaders, but never on an international stage.
Craig Gilroy has also impressed in his first season with Ireland. Arguably he would not get a look in for the Irish were Bowe healthy and considered, but that has not hampered Gilroy as he has run in support and scampered out of the line well. Simon Zebo, too, has a chance and with the flashes of unbridled creativity he has offered, the Munsterman bears keeping in thought.
Then, of course, are the long shots thrown into consideration because they have caught fire in the last month or more. David Strettle is in fine fettle with Saracens, offering a foil across the park from Ashton. The Aviva Premiership’s top try scorer Tom Varndell could also be bandied about for that same reason, and his name is certainly considered on bookmakers’ lists.
Then, after these men, the name most are blurting in a high pitch is that of Christian Wade.
The Wasp has the nimble feet and explosive turn that enthrals crowds and causes defenders to melt like butter in the sun. He may have question marks over his defensive abilities and he may not have experienced tension away from his familiar cabal of friends, but he has a spark. The argument states that with the Lions, even a little spark can cause the whole tour to catch alight.