By Owain Jones
Lions squad 2013
AFTER FOUR years, the waiting is finally over. In less than 24 hours, the names of 37, or 38 players will be read out to a media scrum in South-West London. It will mark the start of another chapter in a 125-year journey for the most celebrated jersey in rugby, the British and Irish Lions.
So, without further ado, here are the names of the tourists we would liked to see named, let us know what you think:
In the pack, the two tightheads pick themselves, Adam Jones will be inked in for a test start, followed closely by Dan Cole, who will looking to push him harder than he did during their head to head in Cardiff. At loosehead, Cian Healy’s carrying game in the loose and solid scrummaging pips 98-cap Gethin Jenkins, who improved steadily through the Six Nations with regular game time. Finally Paul James gets the nod, for his ability to cover both sides of the scrum. Andrew Sheridan, Ryan Grant and Mako Vunipola are the trio closest to the call-up and will no doubt watching their phones nervously over the next two months.
At hooker, the combative Richard Hibbard will start in the box-seat and will be accompanied by Tom Youngs who has had a remarkable 11 months for club and country. Finally, the ever-dependable Rory Best, while not at his most influential, this season, will fight it out with Youngs to unseat the man in possession. Ken Owens, who has proved such an able impact player on the international stage, misses out.
In the engine room, 2009 captain Paul O’Connell tours for a third time after towering performance against Harlequins and a defiant turn against Clermont in the Heineken Cup. He will be joined by the similarily uncompromising Alun Wyn Jones, who added steel and leadership to the Welsh push for the Six Nations title. They are joined by Ian Evans, Jones’ erstwhile partner-in-crime and Richie Gray, who despite a fallow year domestically, adds some flair to his obvious physical grunt in the second-row. Geoff Parling is the final lock. Parling has been a constant for England over the past 15 months, provides a huge workrate and is a skilled lineout technician. Joe Launchbury, Nathan Hines, Donnacha Ryan and Jim Hamilton must have all been jotted down at some point over the last few weeks, only to be replaced.
As probable captain, Sam Warburton travels, but he will be pushed for his place by his regional rival, Justin Tipuric. The young Osprey is the most highly-skilled member of the Lions pack and has the ability to change games with a sleight of hand or a key turnover. His impact will be most likely felt from the bench. The others to make the plane are the bullocking Sean O’Brien who can play anywhere across the backrow and Dan Lydiate, who has just returned from injury and will travel because of his destructive defensive game. The last plane ticket goes to Tom Croft, who has been increasingly influential for Leicester since returning from a serious neck injury. His speed across the deck and lineout option at the tail make him a likely tourist. Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Peter O’Mahony and Kelly Brown can all expect to be at the boarding gate, on standby.
On current form, Toby Faletau makes it as the first-choice. As No 8, Faletau stood out as the most-effective ball carrier and defender in the Six Nations. A player who needed a late run of form to sneak in was Jamie Heaslip. The big man from Kildare put in a timely performance against Biarritz with a brace of tries within the fist 40 minutes. The odd man out is Ben Morgan, whose opportunities to impress were limited by injury.
The man in possession is the irrepressible Mike Phillips for whom the term ‘Test Match Animal’ may as well have been invented, although he’ll need to perform better against Will Genia that he did 12 months ago for Wales, when the Wallaby outplayed him. Ben Youngs and Danny Care will bring sniping options from the bench, leaving Conor Murray at home.
At fly-half, it’s an extremely tight call. Jonny Sexton possesses the finest all-round skill-set in the home nations, and he will be joined by either Owen Farrell or Jonny Wilkinson. Both players are similar, with a structured game and solid defence, but offer limited creativity. On form, Wilkinson’s experience and status in Australia may just tip the favour in his balance. Who else would you want to drop a goal late on?
Midfield is an area where the Lions have extreme power but lack subtlety. The successful 2009 centre pairing of Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll may well be reprised, with the ballast of Manu Tuilagi ready to enter the fray and smash into tiring Wallaby defences late on. Jonathan Davies and James Hook fill the midfield options. Davies is in for his knack of scoring tries and understanding with Roberts, while Hook, an outsider, deserves to tour because of his creativity, versatility and experience. He can comfortably cover 10, 12, 13 and 15 positions and edges the less experienced, Billy Twelvetrees.
The two front-runners on the wing are George North and Tommy Bowe. North is physically intimidating but has quick feet and footballing skills, while 2009 Lions tourist, Bowe, has returned from injury scoring tries liberally with Ulster. Left to fight it out and change Gatland’s mind are the Six Nations top try-scorer Alex Cuthbert and Scot Sean Maitland, who has shown composure, a physical edge and a finishers instinct, since making his international debut in February. Injury may have cost Simon Zebo his tour place, and Christian Wade must have been given some serious consideration.
Full-back is an area of strength for the Lions. Leigh Halfpenny, the 2013 Six Nations Player of the Tournament is a certainty to tour. He has proved a top-class international kicker and also gives the option to play on the wing. Joining him will be the hugely exciting Stuart Hogg and king of the skies, Rob Kearney, who has had a quiet year, but sneaks in on reputation.
Lions squad 2013
Forwards (21): Adam Jones, Dan Cole, Richard Hibbard, Tom Youngs, Rory Best, Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins, Paul James, Paul O’Connell, Alun Wyn Jones, Geoff Parling, Ian Evans, Richie Gray, Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau, Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Tom Croft
Backs (17): Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Jonny Sexton, Jonny Wilkinson, James Hook, Jamie Roberts, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Davies, Manu Tuilagi, Tommy Bowe, George North, Alex Cuthbert, Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg, Rob Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny