Now that the European season has ended and the summer tours are over, we have a few months to wait until the action returns. As the professionals get on with the hard work of preseason training, my thoughts have turned to the 2013 Lions tour in Australia.
The pinnacle of every British and Irish player’s career is a tour with the Lions. With less than a year until the touring party sets off to other side of the world, I am going to pick a squad to tour Australia that I think could pull off the first Lions series win since 1997.
With a year left, anything can happen regarding injuries and form, so I will provide the names of a couple of bolters who could make a late charge at a place in the squad.
With the Wallabies lacking a dominant front five, the scrum could be an area of strength for the Lions, so I think they will pick some specialists to get the upper hand in the coalface.
At loosehead, I feel Gethin Jenkins will be one of the first names on the sheet. Among the best in the world, he is great in the tight and the loose, and in a squad lacking Lions experience he will play a key leadership role.
The backup role will be between Cian Healy and Alex Corbisiero. As a member of the all-conquering Leinster team, Healy has become a world-class loosehead in his own right. His scrummaging has come on in leaps and bounds and he is exceptional in the loose.
Corbisiero struggled to get into the London Irish team last season, and if that continues this year he may miss out. That said you need only watch the Ireland—England game in last season’s Six Nations to see how dominant he can be. A few more outings like that and he will hard to keep off the plane, and his ability to cover 1 and 3 will weigh in his favour.
Squad: Healy, Corbisiero, Jenkins
Bolter: Joe Marler
With no clear favourites in this position, the next year will play a huge role. Dylan Hartley has all the ability in the world but is prone to the odd brain fart. Another suspension next season could ruin his chances of touring.
Rory Best would seem the front-runner at present based on his performances in the last 12 months but isn’t hugely reliable with his darts. He will need another solid 12 months to secure his spot.
Ross Ford is a previous tourist who has stood out in a poor Scottish side in recent years. With them appearing to be on the up, he could have a huge year.
With no one having locked down the Welsh spot at 2, any one of the candidates could have a big year and claim a spot.
A player who may come from nowhere to play a key role is Richardt Strauss. A South African by birth, he has had a few big years for Leinster and he could force his way into the Irish setup when he qualifies in October.
Squad: Hartley, Ford, Strauss
When it comes to the tighthead spot, there are two clear standouts in Dan Cole and Adam Jones.
Jones is in prime position at the moment, but Cole’s game has come on leaps and bounds, and with so many athletic players in the pack the Lions may feel they can sacrifice some of Jones' loose field play in favour of a dominant scrummager.
Euan Murray may make a run at a spot, but his religious beliefs may count against him depending on the timing of games.
Mike Ross is another in with a shot, but he doesn’t have the ability in the tight of Cole or Jones in the loose.
Squad: Jones, Cole
Lock is another position with numerous candidates but no clear standouts.
First is Ireland’s Donnacha Ryan who has come from nowhere to be a standout for both club and country. As a decent lineout option with a great loose game, he could make a big push this year. Paul O’Connell was back to his best last season and may now claim to be the best lineout operator in the world.
The Scots have Richie Gray and Alastair Kellock. Kellock is solid but unspectacular and the type of personality suited to a tour like this. Gray, on the other hand, is a serious unit in both the tight and loose and has come a long way since he was slated by Jeremy Guscott a few years back.
Courtney Lawes looked a shoo in a year ago, but injuries put paid to his rapid rise and he lost his spot to Geoff Parling and Mouritz Botha, but if he returns to form this season his dynamism would be a huge attribute.
For me, both Parling and Botha are both in the Kellock-mode of being solid but not spectacular.
Alun Wyn Jones hasn’t reached the heights many expected but he is still a very good player. A great lineout option, I think it will come down to either him or O’Connell as lineout caller.
Luke Charteris raised a few eyebrows with his World Cup form, but for Pro 12 fans that was nothing new. He rarely puts a foot wrong and puts in some serious graft.
Squad: Gray, Lawes, O’Connell, Charteris
Bolters: Ryan, Kitchener
This is an area of serious strength for the Lions, particularly at 6. Given they will come face to face with David Pocock this area will be a key battleground. Warburton is a shoo in if he can avoid injury. One of the few men who can go toe to toe with Pocock he may also be an option as skipper. Backing him up there are numerous options.
Both Chris Robshaw and Sean O’Brien are natural 6’s but have displayed the ability to play at 7. There are numerous options to line up at 6 all who bring different strengths. Including Robshaw and O’Brien, there is Stephen Ferris, Dan Lydiate and Tom Croft.
Ferris is a behemoth and on last season’s form he is a shoo in but he has a bum knee so this may count against him after a long 12 months.
Lydiate is a tackling machine and has great rapport with Warburton, but his offensive game is limited. Croft has pace to burn, can cover lock and provides a great option in the lineout but he blows hot and cold.
Squad: Warburton, Ferris, Robshaw, O’Brien, Croft
Bolters: Tipuric, O’Mahony, Wood
There are lots of strong candidates here with little between them. Toby Faleteau and Jamie Heaslip would be favourites here but Ben Morgan and David Denton could make late charges.
Heaslip has a great all-around game and isn’t afraid of doing the grunt work but his form dipped last season. Faleteau is a dynamic player who can play across the backrow. His pace would be a huge attribute on the hard ground.
Denton made a huge impression last season and if he can kick on he may be in the mix. Morgan is a bit of an enigma to me. Great with go forward ball and with a good eye for a gap but doesn’t do much of the grunt work. He could also stand to lose a few pounds and improve his fitness.
Squad: Faleteau, Heaslip
This position will be massive given whoever tours will be going up against Will Genia. He is without doubt the best in his position in the world and will need to be marshaled.
Ben Youngs would seem a likely candidate given his pace and unpredictability. He will need to improve his defence and consistency but he should tour.
Mike Phillips is certain to tour. He has a great all-around game and is a great defender which will limit Genia around the base. The third spot is anyone’s guess. There are so many decent candidates that it will all come down to form.
If Sexton starts having Eoin Reddan on the bench may be an option. Conor Murray, despite what he may say to the contrary, is very Phillips like in his game and if can keep improving he will be in the mix.
The Scots like to mix and match there 9’s and 10’s so either Mike Blair or Greg Laidlow will be there or there about depending on where they line up for club and country.
Add to the mix the young Welshmen Lloyd Williams and Tavis Knoyle and there is no shortage of contenders.
Squad: Phillips, Youngs, Laidlow
Bolters: Murray, Williams
Jonny Sexton would be head and shoulders above the rest if he could transfer his club form to the international arena but he has shown enough to tour.
Post World Cup Rhys Priestland seemed destined for the 10 shirt but his game has taken a huge dip and he will need to regain form.
Owen Farrell has a metronomic boot but has he enough about his game to nail down a spot. Toby Flood always seems to be struggling to hold onto an England shirt, but if he comes good next season he has the all-around game to tour.
There is also the option of bringing Blair or Laidlow to cover 9 and 10 and having James Hook as cover while also providing options at 12 and 15.
Squad: Sexton, Priestland, Hook
Bolters: Ford, Cipriani (I’ll expand on this in a later article)
Jamie Roberts is a dead cert at 12. He has no clear rivals for his jersey and barring injuries he will play a key role. Hook and Sexton can cover 12 so I would focus on stacking up on game changers at 13.
Manu Tuilagi has the game to strike fear into the opposition if he has someone to release him into space. Brian O’Driscoll may have lost a yard or five of pace but he is still right up there among the best centres in the world and has great personal memories as a Lion in Australia.
Jonathon Davies is another Welshman who has come on hugely in the last 12 months. His familiarity with Roberts will weigh in his favour and he has natural try scoring ability.
There is also the option of bringing Farrell to play 12 with his defence and kicking game. Keith Earls is a previous tourist but has struggled to get game time at 13 but a good season at Munster could see him in the mix.
Squad: Roberts, O’Driscoll, Tuilagi, Davies
Bolters: Joseph, Earls
The forwards decide who wins but the backs decide by how much. Having strike runners on the wings and at fullback will play a huge role in deciding the series.
George North has to tour. He has the size and pace to cause all sorts of problems and has developed some soft hands to bring in those around him with offloads.
Speaking of offloads two players who could take advantage of this are Chris Ashton and Tommy Bowe. Both men run great lines and could thrive off the line breaks made by the Centres and North.
Two men with the ability to cover wing and fullback are Ben Foden and Leigh Halfpenny. If Preistland starts at 10 then the team will need another kicker which will play into Halfpenny’s hands. He has become a very consistent short range kicker to go with his long range both.
The standout fullback in Europe, and maybe the world, is Rob Kearney. Solid under the high ball and with a great boot he has developed a great counter attacking game under Joe Schmidt. On current form he will tour and likely start.
Squad: North, Ashton, Foden, Halfpenny, Kearney, Bowe
Bolters: Cuthbert, Visser, Hogg, Wade
I have chosen a young squad with a sprinkling of experience fit for a Lions tour.
I’ve gone for a 35-man squad with a 19/16 split among forwards and backs.
Youthful exuberance will only take them so far so experienced heads in key moments.
Failure to achieve success would leave the Lions without a series victory in 16 years, and with New Zealand next up that drought would likely continue.
Australia are probably the weakest of the three Southern Hemisphere giants at home, so the Lions will be desperate for success.
Out of the squad picked, I think this is a team to beat the Wallabies.