Sunday 24 March 2013

Lions watch: End of 6 Nations

Now is the time of year where a lot of people's Lions XV and squads start coming out. I'm actually surprised with the amount of how different some squads are to my views, so here's mine.

I'm going to say who I think are certain tourists, and then come up with logical players to tour outside of that. In my view, playing styles and combinations need to be considered as well as form and quality in picking a touring squad. Not everyone is going to agree with my choices, so as long as I have a logical conclusion, I'm happy.

First, here is the squad I would have picked without any form or injuries back in January. This isn't logical, just based solely on preference, and will give you an idea of my thinking.

15 Kearney, Halfpenny, Foden
Wingers; Bowe, Maitland, North, Fitzgerald
Centres; O'Driscoll, Davies, Roberts, D'Arcy
10s; Sexton, Priestland, Biggar
9; Phillips, Care, Laidlaw
1. Healy, Jenkins, Grant
2, Best, Strauss, Ford
3, Cole, Jones, Murray
2nd Row; O'Connell, AW Jones, Gray, Lawes
6, Ferris, Lydiate, O'Brien
7, Warburton, Tipuric,
8. Heaslip, Faletau

Certain to tour;
15. Halfpenny
14. Cuthbert
12. Roberts
11. North
10. Farrell
9. Phillips
8. Faletau
7. Warburton, Tipuric, Robshaw
5. Alun Wyn Jones
3. Jones, Cole
2. Best, Hibbard.
1. Healy, Jenkins


With Halfpenny one of the few nailed on for a text XV, there are 2 other spots in the touring squad. There were 5 players in contention before the start of the 6 nations; Kearney, Foden, Goode, Brown and Hogg.

Hogg had a fantastic 6 nations and his form was good enough for him to warrant a call up. Kearney has the experience of the 2009 tour, and was talked about for a test definite 12 months ago. His 6 nations wasn't the best, but was it bad enough for him to miss out on the tour altogether. Goode was solid this 6 nations without being spectular. His ability to play at 10 or 12 will help him, but I think he is fighting a losing battle. Brown had a good 6 nations too, but doesn't dominate at international level like he does with Quins. Perhaps a bit too soon for him.

Kearney will undoubtedly be in better form in 3 months time, and Australia are likely to kick more ball to him than any of the teams in the 6 nations did. His experience and assuredness under the high ball should let him retain a tour spot.


With North and Cuthbert taking up two spots, I have 2 spots left. Cuthbert's place is there if he recovers from a hamstring injury in time. Other injured players who are returning soon include Bowe and Zebo who were both namechecked by Gatland as injured players in contention. Zebo provides something different with some magic and has the ability to produce something out of nothing which would be a good weapon to have on tour. His enthuasism and personality would be a delight on tour too, so if he comes back from injury then he is in with a big chance. Likewise, Bowe is world class, was in great form before his injury and has the experience. If he can get 2 or 3 games under his belt between now and April 30th, he should also be on the plane. His injury was more serious though, so there is more doubt about him.

Chris Ashton played his way out of contention with a poor performance in the 6 nations. Craig Gilroy, Tim Visser and Sean Maitland are the only other wingers who played in the 6 nations that are in contention. Gilroy also proves a different option, Maitland has Southern Hemisphere experience and is an incredibly intelligent player. Visser is a natural finisher. Wing is one of the tightest positions. I'd have Zebo if he proves his fitness, as I think he is likely to do, and Bowe if he does, but I'm not sure he will.

In terms of balance between the wings, if Zebo doesn't make it, I'd put Gilroy as his replacement, but if Bowe fails to make it, Maitland or Visser would be his replacement, to maximise the different styles and options available to Gatland.

One possible bolter I'm surprised hasn't been mentioned is Eli Walker, who was outstanding in the Heineken Cup. His pace, and ability to dance away from defenders should have been rewarded with some gametime in the 6 Nations, and another outstanding display could force him in the reckoning as an alternative to Zebo or Gilroy.

Outside Centres

The only reason this man is not a certainty is the slightly below par performance in the last 6 Nations, but for me, not only does O'Driscoll travel, he travels as captain. I would want someone who has been on a Lion's tour before, who is a leader and who already has the respect of the other players in other nations. I believe experience on tour is important, therefore O'Driscoll is the only option. Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones and Robshaw will be valuable on field leaders too.

I would bring two outside centres, and not only did Jonathan Davies rule himself out with some shocking early displays, but Tuilagi almost definitely nailed a spot in the side, so that would be my two on tour.

Stuart Hogg is able to cover here if needed.

Inside Centres

I very nearly didn't have Roberts in here after a lacklustre start. He came good in the end, and produced a monstrous performance against England.

Besides him there aren't too many quality inside centres about. Brad Barritt is probably favourite, but to go along with my original criteria of options, I think Luke Marshall or Billy Twelvetrees as second five-eighths are realistic bolters. Twelvetrees would probably be ahead due to a little bit more experience, but all depends on the next few weeks, with this position being the most open as April 30th approaches.

Out Halves

Owen Farrell performed beyond his years, and showed an admirable calm. His goakicking was very impressive, and with a lack of alternatives, will get on the plane. It will at least pacify the English supporters. His ability to cover centre will provide very useful also.

For me, even now, provided he's nearly back from injury, it's Jonny Sexton's place on the test team to lose.

My preference is for 3 out-halves to go. But there isn't much beyond those two players. Wilkinson will not be considered, and rightly so.

If Ian Madigan plays like he did last weekend for the next few weeks he is in with a bolter possibility.

 Other non-contenders are Freddie Burns, Toby Flood, Duncan Weir, Paddy Jackson, Ruaridh Jackson.

Leaving just Dan Biggar or Rhys Priestland. Preistland is a favourite of Gatty, but Priestland isn't expected to return to training until June which would represent a stupid gamble.

Scrum Halves

Phillips obviously delighted he's got my pick
Mike Phillips finally got in the groove in the 6 Nations with a great performance against England. He is another example of a move to France gone badly.

He will definitely be on the plane, as Bayonne should be out of the Top14 at this stage. But he will need time to get properly back up to speed.

There will be 2 other 9's in the squad between Danny Care, Conor Murray, Greig Laidlaw and Ben Youngs.

I thought Laidlaw had a great tournament, and his ability to cover ten should solve some problems and get him on the plane.

I can't see both Ben Youngs and Danny Care on the tour, and Gatland would go for the incumbent in the 9 jersey, especially as Care had two howlers against Wales and Italy.

Conor Murray is at a huge disadvantage, as despite one of his best campaigns, he is more of a Mike Phillips lite at this stage, and it wouldn't make much sense to bring both and reduce the options available to you.

Loosehead Prop

Cian Healy is a certain tourist for me. And I had Gethin Jenkins down as a certain tourist after his 6 Nations finish, but with Gatland's comments during the week about France-based players I'm not so sure.

I think that'll probably rule Andrew Sheridan out and mean the Jenkins will be free, but it's far from certain.

Which is unfortunate as I think Sheridan would be useful in Australia. With the new prop rules, I think there will be 9 front row players travelling, meaning that there is space for one more loosehead prop.

Tom Court and Dave Kilcoyne did not step up in Healy's brief absence and are ruled out. Alex Corbisiero is injured and not good enough to be an automatic pick. He might have made it if it weren't for the injury.

Mako Vunipola impressed a little, but like with the scrum-halves, Gatland won't pick back up players over an incumbent, and I don't think Joe Marler impressed as much as he needed to.

Which leaves Ryan Grant. For me, Grant had a good tournament, and was even better in November, where he was the only Scottish player to come out with his reputation enhanced. He would be a great choice for 3rd choice loosehead prop.


First off, I would love if Strauss toured. I think his work at the breakdown would be priceless down there, and his ball-carrying would be vital. He is injured, and will be back at the start of April. He has a chance, but I'm going to assume that he won't make it.

Rory Best is the next best in terms of work at the breakdown, and the rest of Best's game means that for me, he is head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, and must travel.

There was a lot of talk about Richard Hibbard going into the 6 Nations, but he didn't deliver until the end. And with a lack of alternatives, he's probably guaranteed a spot too.

Which leaves one spot. Which is almost definitely going to Tom Youngs. I must admit, I'm not sure what the fuss is about Youngs. He's done ok, but he's not ripping trees out of the ground. He'll be a good player in a year or two, but not as good as the English are making him out to be.

Ross Ford did ok this 6 Nations and I think should be in with a shout. But probably not.

Tighthead Prop

Two of the most certain names on the tour are Adam Jones and Dan Cole. Both are among the best in the world in this position.

Mike Ross, Euan Murray and Geoff Cross are the other contenders. There is no match on a Sunday for the Lions, so that won't count against Murray this time, and I think he's coming into some good form and is the best of these 3.

Second Row.

Paul O'Connell made his return to Munster at the weekend, scoring a try and being excellent and lasting 80 minutes. I would wrap him in cotton wool from here until the Lions as he is a text starter.

O'Connell has that persona that lifts everyone around him, demands 110% from everyone and is respected. He is a leader and a serious contender for captain.

Alun Wyn Jones is another back from injury and was peerless against England. He also travels and probably starts for me.

Nathan Hines might be put off by Gatland's comments, but he's left his club in the Top 14 before to play for the Lions, and this is against his home country so he might.

Jim Hamilton tore up lineouts in the 6 Nations, and completely outshone his more vaunted partner Richie Gray, who was terrible.

Geoff Parling was the better of an impressive English 2nd row combination, and Donnacha Ryan is in with a shout as he can cover 6, but I'd have O'Connell, Jones, Parling, Hamilton and Hines. Hines can cover 6, but with his availability in question then Ryan gets in.

Openside Flanker

I'll do openside flanker first, as it'll be easier with selection.

Not really much to say here. It'll have to be a genuine openside.

Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton. Both awesome in the last game, with Tipuric especially showing great form for a while now. Both travel as the 2 7's. The only genuine openside's available, and both are in form. Both to travel. Might see point play together at some point.

Blindside Flanker
Chris Robshaw was outstanding in the 6 Nations, and probably deserves to go as a blindside, with O'Brien next in line. Kelly Brown will be unlucky and probably miss out. Dan Lydiate is returning from injury and is one of the few who could just walk into the tour if he proves his fitness.

Tom Wood is unlucky, but he is behind each player mentioned.

No 8

Toby Faletau was the 3rd best 8 on display in the 6 Nations. Unfortunately the first 2 were Louis Picamoles and Sergio Parisse.

Jamie Heaslip had a poor tournament, and needs a strong return with Leinster to get back in the reckoning. His reputation means he'll be there or thereabouts.

Johnnie Beattie did well, but he could be involved in the Top 14 for Montpeiller, thus not helping his chances.

Ben Morgan is another contender, but he didn't play much through injury and hasn't impressed much.

One left wing bolter would be Gareth Delve, who is playing with Melbourne Rebels, would know a lot about the Australians and would be used to the pitches and style of play. The English would also be calling for Billy Vunipola as a bolter, but it would be unlikely.

My Squad (37) ;

Halfpenny, Kearney, Hogg
North, Cuthbert, Zebo, Maitland
O'Driscoll, Tuilagi
Roberts, Marshall
Sexton, Farrell, Biggar
Phillips, Laidlaw, Youngs
Healy, Jenkins, Grant
Best, Hibbard, Youngs
Jones, Cole, Murray
O'Connell, Jones, Hamilton, Parling, Hines
O'Brien, Robshaw
Warburton, Tipuric,
Faletau, Heaslip


  1. No mention of Richie Gray?

  2. I do mention him. I thought he was one definite who ruled himself out with dismal performances. That injury probably allows Gatland not to select him. I think enough second rows stepped up in the end so that Gatland doesn't have to take a quality but off-form player.