With the eagerly-awaited announcement of the 2013 British & Irish Lions squad taking place tomorrow, this week’s blog makes a valiant (but probably foolhardy) attempt to predict the 37 faces that will be displayed behind Warren Gatland’s Sontaran-like head (thanks to the souped-up Graphics Department of Sky Sports) come Tuesday 30th April. The fixtures of the past weekend wouldn’t have helped what must have already been a difficult decision-making process, with the press proclaiming Jonny Wilkinson a shoo-in for the tour after comprehensively outplaying the once-favoured Owen Farrell. As one journalist said on twitter this week, oh to be a fly on the wall when Gatland and Farrell Senior sit down for final selection talks!
As it happens, Wilkinson does not make my squad of 37. Neither does Dan Lydiate (much as it pains me to leave him out). In total, the tour party contains 14 Welshman, 9 Englishman, 9 Irishman and 5 Scots with Leinster, Leicester and the Ospreys providing the bulk of the touring party between them. Oh, and there’s an Irish captain too…
Many of the squads dreamed up over recent weeks and months will have contained only two full-backs, but I’m taking three on the basis that Head Coach Gatland is likely to take just the two fly-halves. Leigh Halfpenny, Rob Kearney and Stuart Hogg all make the plane with the latter acting as this year’s Utility Back as he’s more than comfortable playing with either 15, 13, 12 or 10 on his jersey.
Four places up for grabs here, two of which were always going to be taken by George North and Alex Cuthbert following this year’s Six Nations finale. My third ticket goes to Tommy Bowe who has been in try-scoring form for Ulster since his return from injury. He’s out of practice at Test Match level but his class on the wing makes it a risk worth taking. The fourth place is a tricky one to call and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gatland goes for Simon Zebo. I’ve gone for Tim Visser though with his run of tries for Scotland just edging him in.
I’m pretty confident that four of the available centre spots will go to Jamie Roberts, Brian O’Driscoll and Manu Tuilagi. The fourth place is a straight fight between Brad Barritt and Jonathan Davies. For me, Davies shades it due to his attacking ability.
Expect a monumental tantrum from the press if Jonny Wilkinson isn’t picked but, with only two outside-half berths available, I think Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell will get the final nod. Wilkinson is certainly playing some of his best rugby but his lack of recent international matches and the fact he will probably miss the start of the tour because of Toulon commitments means that I would give Farrell the place – he was, after all, the form fly-half of the Six Nations.
Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs are the certainties here and both will scrap it out to start the first test at number 9. The third and final berth in my squad goes to Greig Laidlaw who I would take over Danny Care because of his superior kicking-game.
Such are the demands of international rugby nowadays that there are likely to be six props going Down Under. I expect the looseheads to be made up of Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins and (somewhat surprisingly) Alex Corbisiero who the Lions management seem to like and have paid particular attention to. That means no place for Mako Vunipola. The tightheads are similar in that two are nailed-on (Adam Jones and Dan Cole) with the third spot up for grabs. I’ve gone for Euan Murray over Ireland’s Mike Ross.
This position was one of the easier sections of the squad to call: Rory Best, Richard Hibbard and Tom Youngs are all on the plane.
The battle for second-row places became even more competitive with the return of Paul O’Connell for Munster. The 2009 captain has done more than enough to show that he should go on tour and I think he will be joined by Alun-Wyn Jones, Richie Gray and Geoff Parling. That probably leaves one more spot to fill and plenty of candidates to fill it (Ian Evans, Joe Launchbury, Donnacha Ryan etc). My tour wild-card goes to Wales captain Ryan Jones – selected to travel as part of the second-row party but with the ability to play along the back-row too.
And so we come to the most hotly-contested position: the battle for the coveted 6 and 7 jerseys. The need for a specialist openside on the hard, quick Australian grounds will mean that both Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric will travel. Chris Robshaw will also get the nod, though he will probably be playing more at 6. That leaves two more available spots, one of which will be taken by Sean O’Brien I believe – he’s a classy player and has been consistently good for a while now. The final spot seems to be a straight fight between the two injury-prone blindsides Dan Lydiate and Tom Croft. I believe Croft will take the place as he returned from injury sooner than Lydiate and has had the time and games to show what an asset he would be. Lydiate, unfortunately, never really had the opportunity this season to do likewise.
I’ve seen certain squads that have opted to travel with only one specialist Number Eight, but I think this would be foolish. As such, Toby Faletau will be joined by Jamie Heaslip on tour. The latter will count himself as the luckiest man in Ireland in gaining his place. Had Ben Morgan played more international/European rugby this season, I suspect he would have gone.
And finally…the Captain
Apparently, some betting agencies have stopped taking money on Warburton being named as captain. However, as I’ve stated in a previous blog, I think this would be a problematic option. I would take the heat out of the situation by picking a captain from outside the back-row. I suspect the eventual skipper will be Irish to counter-balance the Welsh dominance of the squad. For me, it’s Paul O’Connell…and I wouldn’t have said that at the start of the year!
WALES WATCHING LIONS SQUAD 2013
Backs: Kearney, Halfpenny, Hogg, Bowe, Cuthbert, North, Visser, Davies, O’Driscoll, Roberts, Tuilagi, Farrell, Sexton, Laidlaw, Phillips, B Youngs;
Forwards: Corbisiero, Healy, Jenkins, Cole, A Jones, Murray, Best, Hibbard, T Youngs, Gray, A W Jones, R Jones, O’Connell (c), Parling, Croft, O’Brien, Robshaw, Tipuric, Warburton, Faletau, Heaslip.
So there you go – English, Irish and Scottish friends please feel free to tear me a new one with your comments below. But be reassured that come midday on Tuesday, knowing the history of Lions selection as we do, my squad is probably going to look way off the mark.
To paraphrase the Stereophonics…as long as we beat the Aussies, we won’t care.