The Lions: Who Would You Play at the Back?
After what was in my mind, and in doubt every rugby fan's mind, an enthralling RBS Six Nations, the focus switches next to the British and Irish Lions' tour of South Africa in the summer, and it is now the job of head coach Ian McGeechan to pick a finely balanced squad with enough world-class talent, whilst having to sacrifice some other world-class talents in their place. It's not an easy job.
Especially when there were so many class performances out there amongst the home nations during the Six Nations. The Irish blossomed, England were resurgent, Wales were still there and Scotland showed promise but failed to ultimately deliver. And it wasn't just the teams, but individual players themselves who delivered inspirational performances.
In terms of the forwards...in my view, they pick themselves because of their influential performances week in week out:
1. Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
2. Ross Ford (Scotland)
3. Euan Murray (Scotland)
4. Paul O'Connell (Ireland)
5. Alan Wyn Jones (Wales)
6. David Wallace (Ireland)
7. Martyn Williams (Wales)
8. Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
Although honorable mentions must go to Phil Vickery and Lee Mears (both England), Jerry Flannery (Ireland), Tom Croft (England), Andy Powell (Wales) and Denis Leamy (Ireland)
But I believe where places will be most hotly contested is in the remaining seven places in the backs. So many stood out in every position that it is hard to pick a definite for them. So instead of doing that, each position will be thoroughly examined, as will the likely players, and a decision will most likely come from that.
Scrum-half (No. 9)
To my mind, not many scrum-halves truly stood out in the Six Nations. Scotland's Mike Blair had another chance to impress on the international stage, but flopped. England's Harry Ellis and Danny Care both gave good performances, although Care's sin-bin against Ireland was a bit petulant on his part.
Ireland's Tomas O'Leary also showed good tactical awareness, and Wales' Mike Phillips, although not back to his ultimate best, gave a good account of himself in the Wales shirt. It's hard to pick a definite BUT if I was really pushed...
Verdict: MIKE PHILLIPS (Wales)
Another difficult position to fill, as you want a consistent performer who will always hit the target with penalties and coversions yet is good in open play too. There were, again, not many who really stood out. Ronan O'Gara of Ireland wasn't consistent enough through the tournament (although credit to him that was a cool head he kept when slotting the final drop-goal). Stephen Jones also impressed for Wales, as did Toby Flood for England.
But the biggest headache is of course Jonny Wilkinson. If he can regain his fitness for the Lions' tour, then there is every possibility he could play. This is a hard one so I'm going for two possibilities...
Verdict: JONNY WILKINSON (England)...and if Wilkinson isn't fit, then RONAN O'GARA (Ireland)...becuase I believe he can give a performance when its due.
Left wing (No.11)
This one could have been easy, but over the Six Nations, it became slightly more complicated as the premium number 11 in the world, Wales' Shane Williams, didn't impress as much as in 2008, and this has allowed other names to creep in, such as England's Mark Cueto and Ugo Monye, Ireland's Tommy Bowe and Scotland's Thom Evans. But overall, on his day, little Shane can destroy teams so...
Verdict: SHANE WILLIAMS (Wales)
Inside centre (No.12)
How on earth can you pick an inside centre from the ones who were on show at the Six Nations? Gavin Henson and Jamie Roberts of Wales both gave good accounts of themselves when they played. England's Riki Flutely was a rising star and impressed one and all, and Ireland's Gordon D'Arcy also impressed.
Picking a number 12 from these talents is going to be hard for McGeechan and co, but if I was pressed, then...
Verdict: RIKI FLUTELY (England)...for me he really impressed during the tournament and deserves a Lions' berth.
Outside centre (No.13)
No contest. The easiest position to fill on the park. Mike Tindall and Matthew Tait of England, plus tom Shanklin of Wales, both gave good performances during the tournament, but in the end, this position can only really be filled by one man, who was the star of Six Nations 2009...
Verdict: BRIAN O'DRISCOLL (Ireland)...need I say any more?
Right wing (No.14)
Since little Shane Williams is still the best left-wing in the world, the contest for right-wing now hots up. Paul Sackey and Mark Cueto (again) gave good performances in this position for England, as did Leigh Halfpenny and and Mark Jones of Wales, and Tommy Bowe (again) of Ireland. Not an easy choice to fill on this one, but if I had to plump for one...I can't even plump for one so its a choice of two here, two players who I think can make the number 14 shirt...
Verdict: TOMMY BOWE (Ireland) or LEIGH HALFPENNY (Wales)
Full back (No.15)
Almost as easy to fill outside centre. Delon Armitage of England really impressed for England during the Six Nations, and is really one for the future. But in the end, whilst Armitage was impressive, there was one number 15 out there consistently better...
Verdict: LEE BYRNE (Wales).
So if I were the Lions' boss, this would be the team I would field in the first game:
1. Gethin Jenkins, 2. Ross Ford, 3. Euan Murray, 4. Paul O'Connell, 5. Alan Wyn Jones, 6. David Wallace, 7. Martyn Williams, 8. Jamie Heaslip, 9. Mike Phillips, 10. Jonny Wilkinson/Ronan O'Gara (if JW wasn't fit), 11. Shane Williams, 12. Riki Flutely, 13. Brain O'Driscoll, 14. Tommy Bowe, 15. Lee Byrne.
Captain: Hard one but Brian O'Driscoll would get the nod for me.
It should be an exciting tour for the Lions, against the world champions. Who will be the first XV? Only time will tell.
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