British and Irish Lions 2013: Post Six Nations Squad Outlook
The Six Nations always generates huge interest in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the one time a year that the giants of European rugby go head-to-head. But the addition of a Lions tour makes almost every game a must-watch.
Every game, bar France vs. Italy, features potential Lions tourists and most games feature players going head-to-head against their rivals for a spot on the plane.
As teams' fortunes ebb and flow, so too do the fortunes of individual players. The potential makeup of the squad changed with each passing game as players played their way into, and out of, the squad.
For Warren Gatland it was a chance to see how players dealt with the pace of international rugby, not to mention the pressure.
There is more than a month left till Gatland sits down to make his final selection, but you can be guaranteed a host of players have already been inked into the team sheet.
With that in mind, here is a potential 37 man squad based on from in the Six Nations and the previous few months.
Factors That Could Influence Selection
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When considering the final make-up of his squad that will travel to Australia to tackle the Wallabies aside from the basics of form and fitness.
First and foremost is whether he will take 35 or 37 players. Given that history shows a number of players are likely to drop out before departure, he would be wise to pick as big a squad as possible.
Another issue will be how the final stages of the French Top 14 factor into his selection.
The final will clash with the Lions opening fixture against the Barbarians, and comes just four days before their first game on Australian soil.
Appearing in said final would rule participating players out of contention in these two games, but also key trainings sessions, meetings and other squad bonding activities.
Gatland has indicated these players will probably not be considered for the tour which means he would have to rule out any players playing for the top six sides in France.
That would include players like Gethin Jenkins, Steffon Armitage, Jonny WIlkinson, Andrew Sheridan, Nathan Hines, Lee Byrne and James Hook.
Most of these players had outside shots at best but Jenkins would be considered a possible Test team player, while Hook, Wilkinson and Sheridan have their fan clubs.
With Gatland's comments in mind they have all been excluded from the squad, but I can't see Jenkins not playing a role.
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A position that will spark huge debate in the coming weeks with a host of players putting their hand up for selection, but only one separating himself from the crowd.
Leigh Halfpenny is a sure bet to travel, and likely starter given his form in recent weeks. He has all the tools expected of a modern full-back with the bonus of being a strong place kicking option.
Alex Goode has really stood out in recent weeks, with his impeccable positioning and booming right foot, but he didn't get a chance to showcase his ability to attack the line.
Rob Kearney was a sure bet at the start of the season but missed a large chunk of game time, appearing well short of top form for much of the Championship. His malaise wasn't helped by the revolving door alongside him on the wings, but Gatland will have taken note of his fine performance in the driving Dublin rain against France.
Staurt Hogg was a breath of fresh air for Scotland, breaking from the back with great speed and vision every chance he got. He struggled under the high ball at times, while his tackling was well below standard. Can Gatland trust him as the last line of defence against the likes of Digby Ioane?
Mike Brown had a sparkling campaign on the wing, but I doubt, considering the options there, that he will be picked as a winger so his best shot is at full-back. He would be a long-shot but he has the type of game to shine on the hard tracks in Australia.
Ben Foden is the forgotten man of English rugby, forced to watch from the stands and turn out for Northampton. He is a proven commodity and potential tourist if injury hits.
Tourists: Halfpenny, Kearney, Hogg
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Another position with lots potential tourists without many clear-cut choices as form and injury has taken its toll on the favourites.
George North and Alex Cuthbert will likely tour on the back of fine campaigns for the Welsh. Both are big and powerful with a nose of the try-line. Cuthbert has shown a real killer instinct this season while North has shone despite drawing huge attention.
Eli Walker is an exciting talent, and potential bolter, but his lack of action during the Six Nations means his form in the Pro 12 will be the deciding factor.
Tim Visser and Sean Maitland both had strong debut campaigns for Scotland but Visser had his struggles when on the back foot. Maitland is the more rounded player, offensively and defensively, but Visser is a hard man to stop when he gets going. Visser would be a like-for-like replacement for Cuthbert and North but Maitland would offer something different.
Ireland have had their issues with injury on the wing so there are a host of possible tourists. Tommy Bowe is a certain tourist if he finds fitness and form, but that is becoming less likely by the day. Simon Zebo would bring a real X-Factor to the side and is hoping to be back from injury in time for the trip to Harlequins.
Other potential Irish tourists are Keith Earls and Craig Gilroy. Earls, a bolter in 2009, has an eye for a gap but tends to pin his ears back and ignore support, often butchering chances. Gilroy is light but has stood out in a poor campaign. He is difficult to pull down, finding space where he shouldn't and is brave in defence.
Chris Ashton was seen as a likely tourist but he had a horrible campaign, falling off tackles and doing nothing with ball in hand. He's unlikely to be given much chance to shine on the Saracens wing either. We've already discussed Brown so the only other candidate's come from the Aviva Premiership.
David Strettle has his fans but I don't think Gatland is among them, while Christian Wade is a potential bolter given his sparking form at Wasps.
Tourists: North, Cuthbert, Maitland, Bowe/Zebo
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A rogue's gallery of legends past, present and future mixed with a couple of journeymen and misfits.
If any player deserves a swansong its Brian O'Driscoll, and his form more than warrants a berth on the plane. His body takes a mountain of abuse for Ireland so he would benefit from having a few big bruisers around him. He may have to shift inside and use his vision to unleash those around him, given his lack of pace.
Jamie Roberts starting the campaign like a snail but finished like a train, hurling himself at Englishmen in attack and defence. Gatland is a big fan and Roberts has rapport with O'Driscoll. They could switch positions as required depending on the circumstances.
Manu Tuilagi is a total enigma. He is big and powerful but there is little variation to his game. If he can't run through his opponent he struggles. When he is good he is unplayable, but too often he is a non-factor. Gatland will need to decide if this is because of a lack of creativity in the English side or his own short comings.
Brad Barritt is a bit like marmite; you either love him or you hate him. I wouldn't be his biggest fan but can see his value. He is a brick wall in defence and the shortage of options mean he may very well tour.
Jonathan Davies was another who seemed certain to tour before he had a nightmare against Brian O'Driscoll. His form improved without ever reaching the heights expected of him. His pace sets him apart from most of the other candidates and he is a Gatland favourite.
Tourists: O'Driscoll, Roberts, Tuilagi, Davies
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Gatland main worry in the coming weeks will be who he can trust to pull the strings of the Lions attack.
Jonny Sexton was the one truly world-class option, offering a polished all-round game, but he has been hit by injury and might not see action before the squad is announced. Given the dearth of options in the position he is unlikely to miss out.
Owen Farrell has grown in stature with each passing week, becoming the heart beat of the English side at just 21. But there are still huge doubts about his ability to bring others into the game. In the final four games of the campaign England only scored one try, and even that should've been ruled out.
Dan Biggar was another Welshman who grew into his role over the course of the campaign, displaying real presence in the Championship decider. Rob Howley's input will make or break his chances.
Outside that the options are limited.
Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson both had their chances without ever truly making their mark. Weir would be a more likely tourist, given his form with Glasgow.
Jonny Wilkinson has his fans in the media pushing his cause but that is very unlikely.
Rhys Priestland is a big Gatland favourite and has spent the last few months healing body and mind. If fit and firing he could force his way into the team.
Tourists: Farrell, Sexton, Biggar
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A position of real strength for the Lions, and it will need to be given they will be going up against the brilliant Will Genia. It will come down to how Gatland intends to take on the Wallabies and if he wants a plan B.
Mike Phillips was horribly out of form at the start of the year but, like his French-based comrades, a few weeks in the Valley's did him the world of good and he was back to his rampaging best against England. His presence would keep Genia occupied, while his long pass can help get around the fastest blitz defences.
Conor Murray would be the most like-for-like replacement but he blew hot-and-cold for much of the campaign. He was brilliant against France and Wales, but average otherwise. His loose kicking could be brutally exposed by the brilliant Australian counter-attack.
England's Ben Youngs and Danny Care offer a plan B. Both possess a great turn of pace and speedy delivery off the deck. Youngs has won the starting role for England, but a strong close to the season for Harlequins would do Care the world of good. If Youngs can carry his form back to Leicester he will cause havoc as the weather heats up.
Greig Laidlaw was finally moved into his favoured position for Scotland and it paid huge dividends. He bossed his big pack around the paddock and his kicking was superb. His ability to cover 10 and kick goals will play hugely in his favour.
Tourists: Youngs, Phillips, Laidlaw
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An position in which Gatland could go a number of ways in his selection. Despite the strength on the flank, in-form No. 8's are few and far between.
Toby Faletau is the one player who really put his hand up for selection over the course of the Six Nations, growing in stature as the campaign went on. His game will suit the hard grounds of Australia and his ability with ball in hand will give the Lions a serious threat off the base of the scrum.
After Faletau there are a number of good, but not great, options to choose from. Gatland will be keeping a keen eye on a host of names in the coming weeks.
Ben Morgan had a strong start to the campaign but injury ruled him out of the the last four games leaving Tom Wood to cover for him. Morgan is a fine ball carrier but needs to up his work-rate. Wood is a fine player but is a converted flanker, with his game best suited to the blindside.
Johnnie Beattie was a surprise pick at the start of the championship but was a real asset to Scotland over the five games. He is a strong ball-carrier with the ability to offload in the tackle. Could his career resurgence result in a trip with the Lions?
An outside bet worth keeping an eye on is Nick Easter, dumped by England due to his age but in fine form with Harlequins.
There is also the possibility that Gatland will only bring a single No. 8 and rely on the versatility of his flankers to cover the position.
Tourist: Faletau, Heaslip
Flanker: Part 1
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Given the amount of quality available for selection on the flanks I've had to split this category into two parts.
Sam Warbartun has been on a bit of a roller coaster during the last few weeks. A campaign in which he was dropped and had the captaincy stripped, ended with a sparkling display that showed why he is so highly rated.
He was back to his best when he was freed from both the burden of leadership and given free range to scavenge. What the Six Nations showed was that he is at his best when partnered with someone willing to do the donkey work.
That man may be England's Chris Robshaw who did a fine job covering at openside until he came up against Wales. His best position is on the blindside and could be the perfect man to play alongside Warburton.
Another candidate is the man who took Warburton's spot on the Welsh side, Justin Tipuric. A classic openside, he is at his best linking play between forwards and back. His role in Wales' second try in Grand Slam decider showed his ability with ball in hand.
Ireland's Sean O'Brien is another who can play both open and blind, but is best suited to the blindside. He does a mountain of donkey work for the Irish, often leading them in tackles and carries. He was a real shining light in a struggling Irish side.
These would be the main candidates as things stand but there is no shortage of players fighting for a spot on the plane.
Flanker: Part 2
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Among those fighting it out for a spot on the flank are a host of players coming back from injury and others whose stars are on the rise.
The injured brigade are lead by the returning Tom Croft. A star for the Lions in 2009, his skill set makes him an unlikely candidate for test team but his dynamism cannot be discounting. He was parachuted into the England team too soon, but a strong couple of months for Leicester will do his chances no harm.
Dan Lydiate is a player who Gatland knows well but he hasn't got much time to prove his fitness. Given the severity of his injury, it's unlikely he'll tour but he has a great relationship with Gatland and is a proven world class operator. He also brings out the best in both Faletau and Warburton.
If the Lions are looking for genuine opensides then they would do well to consider Steffon Armitage. Ingored by the England setup, he has been in great form for Toulon in the Top 14.
Tom Wood's name was mentioned as a possibility to tour at No. 8 but his best position is on the blindside. He is a player in the Lydiate mold who best moments are spent doing the unseen work and making tackles around the fringes.
Scotland have a couple of names in the mix but none that jump off the sheet. Kelly Brown is a workhorse who's in fine form but his game is limited. Rob Harley gave a fine account of himself over the Six Nations but the Tour comes a couple of years too soon.
A name to keep an eye on is Ross Rennie who made a welcome return from injury against Ulster. He is a genuine openside and those are few and far between.
Stephen Ferris's physicality would be a huge benefit to any side but his latest injury setback means he has no chance of making the tour. His replacement for Ireland Peter O'Mahony had a strong Six Nations, even covering the wing at one stage. The Lions probably comes a year too soon, but he may find himself on standby for the summer.
Tourists: Warburton, Tipuric, O'Brien, Robshaw, Lydiate (Wood)
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Another position with a whole host of candidates with different skillsets to choose from. It will all come down to what Gatland wants in his lock forwards.
Richie Gray's size and ability with ball-in-hand makes him a likely tourist but he was outshone by his Scottish second row partner Jim Hamilton over the Six Nations. Hamilton is much more abrasive than Gray and would give Gatland a real dog in the pack if he wants one.
Ian Evans was rushed back from injury for the campaign and really hit the ground running. He is a great all-rounder and a fine scrummager. This ability in the scrum could be the thing that pushes him over the top.
Alun Wyn-Jones played a limited role over the Six Nations but made a huge impact with both his play and his leadership. If he can continue in that vein in the coming month he will tour.
Donnacha Ryan was given the unenviable task of replacing Paul O'Connell for Ireland and Munster, but really stepped up when required. He became a real leader in the Irish pack, controlling the lineout and tackling everything that came his way. He is more limited than some of the other candidates but is a fine all-rounder and his personality may mark him out as a potential dirt tracker.
England have a trio of players who have put their hands up for selection. Geoff Parling is a hugely underrated player who is growing into international rugby. His intelligence and athleticism makes up for the shortcomings in his game.
Over the Six Nations he was partnered by both Courtney Lawes and Joe Lauchbury. Both of these candidates are real modern lock forwards. Hugely athletic and physical, they have the game to thrive in Australia. Lawes has struggled with injuries while Launchbury is still very young. It's unlikely both will tour but one definitely will.
One potential dark horse is the returning Paul O'Connell. Gatland will know exactly what he offers so if he can show form and fitness he may very well have an outside shot. O'Connell recent return to action gives him a chance to make a late push. He looks in decent form and will be full of energy come the summer.
Tourists: Wyn-Jones, Gray, Launchbury, Evans, O'Connell/Ryan
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As previously mentioned the scrum will play a huge role in deciding who will win the tour. With that in mind, Gatland will have been pleased with what he saw over the Six Nations.
At different times all the main candidates had strong showings, really stepping up to the challenge.
The Six Nations decider pitted the two main candidates, Dan Cole and Adam Jones, up against each other.
The manner in which Wales dominated will play hugely in Jones' favour. He got better and better as the tournament went on.
Cole, on the other hand, had a couple of strong games but struggled at times. The problems against Wales came mainly on the loose-head side but Cian Healy gave him some trouble in Dublin, not just the stamp.
Because the laws now allow for two props on the bench Gatland may go with three tight-heads and three loose-heads.
Mike Ross of Ireland is probably next in line and had a decent campaign. He, and the Irish scrum, showed a great ability to adjust on their feet to counter any problems they were having. He isn't as dominant as Jones, nor as good in the loose as Cole, so is unlikely to tour.
Euan Murray is another possible but he flew under the radar this campaign. Given the quality of the opposition he needed to make a statement, and being solid wasn't enough to break into the squad.
Tourists: Cole, Jones
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After the first two rounds of the Six Nations the position of starting hooker was Rory Best's to lose, and he very well might have.
After a star showing against Wales and a solid display against England, his line-out throwing fell to pieces. Time-after-time he missed his man at the worst possible time, mainly in the red-zone, and this played a huge role in the defeats to both Scotland and Italy. He must do better in the coming months or miss out altogether.
If Best got worse as the tournament went on then Hibbard got better. A relatively late-bloomer, he has come of age this season. He is the surest option out of touch and is a fine scrummager. He may lack the all-round game of the other candidates but he is the most reliable. Ken Owens is another potential tourist but he probably didn't see enough action to earn his place.
Dylan Hartley may have shot himself in the foot when got suspended last November and will likely miss the Lions tour because of it. He played well in limited minutes but didn't get enough opportunities to show his worth.
The man who replaced him, Tom Youngs, is another who is really coming into his own. A converted Centre, he has great ball skills and solid, if not wholly reliable basics. His all-round ability means Gatland should take a chance on him, if he can continue to develop his throwing.
Ross Ford has the all-round game to tour but he hasn't shown great form in recent months. If the change of management at Edinburgh can get the best out of him, he may make a late push.
Tourists: Hibbard, Best, Youngs
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The Six Nations also gave a great insight into the position of loose-head prop, more importantly who was ready and who was not.
Cian Healy was at his formidable best when he was on the pitch, dynamic in the loose and strong in the scrum. His stamp on Dan Cole was dangerous but hugely out of character. One of the few certainties to tour.
If the squad was picked tomorrow Gethin Jenkins would tour, but instead he has to go back to France and spend the next few weeks sitting on the bench. He was out of shape and form at the start of the campaign and took a few weeks to get going. He was back to near his best against England, but can Gatland afford to wait for him to find form in Australia.
The man starting ahead of him at Toulon, Andrew Sheridan, is out of the English reckoning but would bring a real fear factor with him. He has tormented the Aussies over the years and would relish the chance to get after them again.
Ryan Grant of Scotland was a long-shot but his odds are getting shorter by the day. He had a really strong few weeks and the struggles other candidates has pushed him to the forefront. If Gatland needs a few Scots to tour he could do worse than bringing Grant.
England's Alex Corbisiero would be a likely tourist if fit but he can't seem to stay on the field. His destructive scrummaging and ability to play both sides may see him make a late push.
His replacements for England, Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola, had strong debut campaigns but are probably a bit callow given the strength of options available. Both are strong in the loose but have shortcomings come scrum time.
Tourists: Healy, Grant, Marler