This summer rugby fans in the northern and southern hemispheres will be fixated on the Lions’ tour of Australia, where they have not played since losing the test series 2-1 in 2001. At this stage, fans and hacks alike are close to the point of salivation in anticipation of Warren Gatland’s squad announcement on April 30th. Deputy sports editors Will Slattery (backs) and Tom Rooney (forwards) put their heads together and picked a starting XV to deliver the Lions a first test series since South Africa in 1997. Deputy Sports editors Tom Rooney and Will Slattery pick their team.
15- Leigh Halfpenny
Would love to pencil Rob Kearney into this position but Halfpenny had a great championship and deserves it on form at the moment. He kicks his goals, is solid under the high ball and is a dangerous runner as well. Nobody is really a nailed on starter at this stage but it really is Halfpenny’s to lose. Kearney or Hogg could make a run but given how well he played in 2009 you would have to fancy Kearney.
14- Alex Cuthbert
All this guy does is score tries. Well, that and make breaks while being solid defensively. If people thought he was just a basher like some others (e.g. North), he showed his pace by skinning England’s Mike Brown in the championship decider. In the recent test series’, the Lions have been culpable of severe white line fever. Cuthbert is an out and out finisher much like Chris Ashton. The Englishman may be out of form but the Welshman is in try scoring mode.
13- Brian O’Driscoll CAPTAIN
This isn’t some sort of “let’s send the great man off with one last hurrah” sort of thing. He was easily the best 13 in the championship. Jonathan Davies can make a break regularly but his handling is not up to the level required for a Lions test series. As for the captaincy, all you have to do is look at Ireland’s dismal 6 Nations and imagine how much worse it would have been without him leading from the front with his body. His reappearance certainly helped Ireland hold onto a draw against the French.
12- Manu Tuilagi
Certainly not everyone’s pick and many would go with 2009 man of the series Jamie Roberts but Tuilagi just gives the Lions that bit of mystery. His faults are known: he shoots out of defence looking for the knockout hit while he opts to hold onto the ball too often. But his powerful fend opens up opportunities out wide that aren’t always available through Roberts straight hard but admittedly ground gaining lines. Selecting either would be a strong move.
11- George North
North gets a tentative selection. No one is questioning his physical gifts but his game lacks the nuance of other wingers. He doesn’t look to link with the ball in hand but instead seeks out contact, usually near the sideline. You could liken the 21 year old to the big dumb kid on your U 13 team who matured early and tried to run over everyone. Tim Visser, Chris Ashton, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo (both if fit) could all be in with a shout.
10- Jonny Sexton
He is one of the few who has the position to lose. Owen Farrell can control a game but with the fast pace that Australia play the Lions need a ball handling outhalf to match them. If he can iron out his international kicking jitters he should be fine. Jonny Wilkinson would be a good pick for no3 outhalf. He is out playing Hook in the Top 14 and ask yourself, would you rather have Bigger or Wilkinson lining up a late drop goal?
9. Mike Phillips
Would originally have chosen Ben Youngs or Danny Care here, but Phillips bullied them both in the 6 Nations decider. He plays his best on the big stage and a good defender is required to marshal the dangerous Australia scrumhalfs. Wouldn’t be that surprised if Murray made it in ahead of Care and will be a tight call.
1. Cian Healy
There are many who think Gethin Jenkins is the frontrunner for the loose head position, but he has not been able to cement a starting spot for Toulon and looks to have fallen victim to lax attitude to fitness in France. Healy is ever-improving as a scrumager, puts in a huge amount of work in the loose and is an outstanding ball carrier.
2. Tom Youngs
Made the most of his opportunity in the 6 Nations, after which he should be considered England’s first choice hooker. Rory Best did himself no favours throughout the tournament, and may have played himself out of contention; however, Richard Hibbard made a compelling case for himself. Wood is slightly on the small side, but covers a lot of ground and is more than adequate out of touch.
3. Adam Jones
What a player! Had an amazing 6 Nations, which, of course, is his want. Stabilised the Lions’ scrum in South Africa in 2009 after the Beast obliterated Phil Vickery in the first half of the opening test, which may have turned out differently had he started- continues to be one of the world’s premiere tight heads season after season.
4. Alun Wyn Jones
Looked a little out of his depth in South Africa in 2009, but has matured both mentally and physically since then and looks the finished article. An excellent line out operator, destructive at the breakdown and a decent footballer to boot.
5. Nathan Hines
A tough call to say the least, with the English locks performing so well and Jim Hamilton having such a strong 6 nations, but with Richie Gray out of the reckoning and Paul O’Connell ruling himself out, a wildcard was warranted. Hines is ferocious competitor and could be the difference when trying to exert dominance in the tight exchanges, he also has a plethora of experience and was a great tourist last time out.
6. Tom Croft
Like he did in 2009, Croft is benefitting from the misfortune of Stephen Ferris, and not to mention the outstanding Dan Lydiate, who has only recently returned to action. That is not meant as a slight of any kind; Croft looked great in the championship returning from injury, and brought balance to the English back row. He is deceptively quick, an option in the line out and has an eye for the try line.
7. Sam Warburton
All it took was being dropped and losing the Welsh captaincy for him to rediscover the form that earned him plaudits the world over. He played like a man possessed against England in the championship decider and, along with Justin Tipuric monopolised the breakdown, causing England to capitulate. Would have been great to see him go head- to- head with David Pocock.
8. Sean O’Brien
Arguably Ireland’s player of the championship and one of the few positives to be taken from such an unmitigated disaster. Toby Faletau and Jamie Heaslip have hardly been covering themselves in glory as of late and Johnny Beattie, frankly isn’t good enough. O’Brien is a fantastic athlete and should be well suited to the hard grounds, needs to improve his offloading game.
Tom Rooney and Will Slattery