Picking a British & Irish Lions Squad If There Was a 2014 Tour

Tom SunderlandFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

Picking a British & Irish Lions Squad If There Was a 2014 Tour

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    The British and Irish Lions tour is a momentous occasion of any rugby professional's career, and one which some might wish came more regularly than its current four-year cycle.

    However, while it may be no enviable task, we've decided to step into Warren Gatland's shoes for a brief spell, piecing together a theoretical 37-man squad which could tour this summer.

    For the sake of precision, we've been as thorough as possible with injuries and a player's real-time health, taking into account the amount of time they'd have to get match fit if making their return to health, and if they're currently ruled out for this summer, they aren't available for selection.

    Prominence within the national setups will encourage one's inclusion in the squad, with a particular significance placed on a player's performances at the Six Nations, as well as in league and cup competition.

Props

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    Cian Healy, Ireland

    Right now, Cian Healy is challenging for the title of best loose-head prop in the Northern Hemisphere, or at least current form would have it that way.

    The Irish behemoth has adapted swiftly to the new scrum laws and already toured with the Lions in 2013, unfortunate not to play a more prominent role after suffering an ankle injury. 

     

    Joe Marler, England

    Alex Corbisiero's loss has been Joe Marler's gain over the last five months, and England's, too, in a way, giving Stuart Lancaster a better opportunity to see what a thriving raft of loose-head options he has at his disposal.

    At just 23 years of age, the Harlequins star is constantly learning from whatever is thrown in his direction and the experience of a Lions tour would do wonders in advancing his development. 

     

    Alex Corbisiero, England

    Something of a wild card in this selection, but it's that man Corbisiero who, if there were a Lions tour this summer, could hold out some distant hope of perhaps making the cut if he showed enough promise back on the club stage.

    Having undergone knee surgery in November, Corbisiero is hoping to be back in action this season, Jim Mallinder told the Northampton Chronicle and Echo (h/t Planet Rugby), and having toured in Gatland's squad last summer, the England prop could hope to pick up where he left off—in emphatic form.

     

    David Wilson, England

    Dan Cole's injury in Week 2 of this year's Six Nations had some in the England support worrying about the security of England's front row, but Lancaster may have uncovered a potentially superior alternative in David Wilson.

    The Bath figure is in flying form right now, scoring for both club and country in the space of a week during March, holding a great account of his talents at both the set piece and in the loose.

     

    Mike Ross, Ireland

    At 34 years of age, a 2014 British and Irish Lions tour might be perfectly timed for Mike Ross, who will undoubtedly be out of the picture by the time 2017 comes around.

    Leinster's veteran brought solidity to the Irish pack during this Six Nations that Joe Schmidt will feel was a telling factor in his side's Six Nations triumph. 

     

    Adam Jones, Wales

    Thirty-three year-old Adam Jones has already been on two tours with the Lions, and despite not having his most prolific Six Nations championship this year, the Welshman remains one of the most respected tight-head presences on this side of the equator.

    Ospreys may not have Jones' talents too much longer, and it's no surprise to hear that French clubs may be sniffing around another potential Welsh recruit.

Hookers

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    Rory Best, Ireland

    Rory Best was unfortunate enough to miss out on Warren Gatland's initial 37-man squad in 2013, only called up after Dylan Hartley was handed his suspension for abusing the official in last season's Aviva Premiership final.

    However, a year later, Ireland's No. 2 would be more than deserving of his place in the squad and could certainly argue for a starting place, showing consistency in all aspects for both Ulster and Ireland.

     

    Dylan Hartley, England

    And it's the other component in that spectacle, Hartley, who has recovered from the disappointment of last summer's Lions exclusion to once again discover his better form, cementing his place as England's clear, first-choice hooker.

    Earlier in March, former New Zealand international Sean Fitzpatrick referred to Hartley as "world class," per the Express' Andrew Elliott, such has been the swift nature of his return to form.

     

    Tom Youngs, England

    With Richard Hibbard's shoulder injury ruling him out of action this summer, the third hooker's spot is somewhat more contentious, but goes to Tom Youngs on account of his recent experiences in a Lions dressing room.

    The Leicester Tigers figure has some work to do on his line-out throwing, but is still a valuable option. Other candidates for the spot might be Ireland's Sean Cronin, Scotland's Scott Lawson or Wales' Ken Owens.

Locks

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    Courtney Lawes, England

    Subverting the old-fashioned stereotype of second rows being slow and immobile creatures, Courtney Lawes continues to prove that locks can be as agile as their team-mates in the back row in the modern era.

    Alongside Joe Launchbury, the Northampton Saints star has had a meteoric rise for both club and country over the last 12 months, establishing arguably the most balanced lock partnership in the Northern Hemisphere. 

     

    Joe Launchbury, England

    And the other part of that cohesive duo is London Wasps' Launchbury, who at just 22 years of age has an incredibly promising international career ahead of him.

    The youngster is gradually building up a propensity for stronger and stronger carrying movements, and his work next to Lawes in the English line-out has been superb of late. 

     

    Paul O'Connell, Ireland

    Something of an obligatory selection given that the veteran has just played a leading role in Ireland's Six Nations triumph, Paul O'Connell would feature in a fourth Lions tour if there were to be one this summer.

    The lock might be 34 years of age, but there's no signs of slowing down in his on-pitch persona, which remains as full of vigour as ever. 

     

    Alun-Wyn Jones, Wales

    Despite struggling with a foot injury for a short spell in the Six Nations this year, Alun-Wyn Jones nevertheless maintains his place in the Lions, playing with a refined manner when he was fit.

    The Welshman featured magnificently in all three of last year's Tests against the Wallabies, and the thought of pairing Jones' leading figure alongside O'Connell's is a scary thought for any Southern Hemisphere outfit to envision. 

     

    Richie Gray, Scotland

    One of the few Scottish nominations in our squad, Richie Gray was one of the few players in Scott Johnson's squad who, despite their lack of success, still held a fairly good account of his individual worth.

    Having initially started this year's Six Nations on the bench, Gray's value to the starting XV was quickly realised and he was reincorporated into the starting line-up, with Castres also continuing to benefit from his talents.

Back Row

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    Dan Lydiate, Wales

    If Dan Lydiate's performances on the 2013 Lions tour weren't enough to warrant a recall, then his fine tackling form at this year's Six Nations certainly are.

    As OptaJonny states, the Welsh blindside made 66 tackles in the tournament, failing to miss a single one. If there were any No. 6 whose name deserves to be first on the squad sheet, it's Lydiate's. 

     

    Justin Tipuric, Wales

    Sam Warburton's dislocated shoulder means that he too will be absent from any plans Wales have for this summer, so it's fortunate that Justin Tipuric can come in as an asset of extremely similar quality.

    The scavenging openside had to settle for a place behind his Welsh captain at the Six Nations, but took his chance well when he did get to feature, and he also has experience in the Lions teams, having travelled to Australia last year.

     

    Chris Henry, Ireland

    Any notion of Sean O'Brien's injury having a dramatic impact on Ireland's fortunes at this year's Six Nations were quickly swept under the rug by Chris Henry's surprising rise to prominence in Schmidt's setup.

    The back rower not only filled in for his countryman, but thrived in his new responsibilities. That, on top of his considerable and consistent contributions to Ulster's cause are enough to warrant his inclusion.

     

    Chris Robshaw, England

    Having tragically been one of the most high-profile names to miss out on Gatland's touring squad last year, Chris Robshaw's hard work would be enough to see him included were there a plane to be boarded with the Lions this time around.

    Robshaw's captaincy of England has gone well over the last two years, and the Harlequin is beginning to add more to his game than just tackling, pitching in with a more enthusiastic running game on occasion. Also has the added advantage of being able to play either side of the scrum.

     

    Sean O'Brien, Ireland

    Sky Sports reported this week that Sean O'Brien is "ahead of schedule" in his recovery for shoulder surgery, and could be back training in two weeks, which will be like sweet music to the ears of Leinster and Ireland.

    On his day, the Tullow Tank ranks up there with some of the most devastating flankers in international rugby, and given a month or two to prepare, could be of definite use in a Lions tour this summer.

     

    Billy Vunipola, England

    Moving to the No. 8s, Billy Vunipola's ankle injury meant that he had to sit out the second half of the Six Nations, but it's not so serious that the Saracen is expected to miss out on a great deal of his summer.

    Prior to that injury, the England international was in fine attacking form and, despite being just 21, had a huge impact against the likes of France and Scotland. With more time spent among more seasoned heads, there's no telling what Vunipola could go on to become.

     

    Taulupe Faletau, Wales

    Jostling alongside his cousin for the No. 8 jersey would be Vunipola's Welsh counterpart Taulupe Faletau, who beats Jamie Heaslip and David Denton to a place in our squad.

    Heaslip may have started in three Australian Tests last year compared to Faletau's one, but when comparing the two players' respective development over the last year, it's the Welshman who should be given the experience, though a very tough call to make.

Scrum-Halves

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    Conor Murray, Ireland

    It's an extremely tough call to make deciding who was the most impressive scrum-half of this year's Six Nations competition, but title-winning Conor Murray is one of the two up for consideration.

    Stepping up to the occasion in the biggest matches, Murray's performance in the clincher against France was of particular significance, due to his blend of direct, individual running and fast ball out to the backs creating indecision among defenders. 

     

    Danny Care, England 

    And of course England's Danny Care is the other candidate for the No. 9 shirt in the Team of the Tournament, having finished the tournament with two tries to his name thanks to some impressive quick wit and initiative.

    At the beginning of the championship, Care was supposedly third choice behind Tom Youngs and Lee Dickson, but a vast amount of mental fortitude has seen the Harlequins playmaker shrug off his critics to rediscover his best form. 

     

    Mike Phillips, Wales

    While Murray and Care are a very strong duo of half-backs, Mike Phillips gets the nod for our line-up more as a result of there not being any other standout candidates more than his own individual brilliance.

    That's not to say the Racing Metro man doesn't provide a versatile and potentially devastating third choice, as he has shown in the Top 14 since moving to Paris, even featuring at inside centre for a short period.

Fly-Halves

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    Jonny Sexton, Ireland

    This would undoubtedly be the most difficult decision of Gatalnd's tour were there to be a trip in 2014, and it could still be a dilemma come 2017—who do you start out of Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell?

    Sexton's game-winning territory kicking and cool head were on full display against Wales in the Six Nations, but his skill set was shown to be somewhat limited after he became neutralised against England.

    That being said, when it mattered most, the Irishman turned on the afterburners and scored four tries in the last two weeks of the tournament, giving Schmidt's men a massive boost on their way to silverware.

     

    Owen Farrell, England

    Farrell, on the other hand, was consistent throughout the international tournament, and he has been a terror to deal with on the club scene, dealing some decisive blows in the victory over Harlequins at Wembley in late March.

    Farrell brings the additional bonus of being able to play as a technically gifted 12 should the team need him to shift wider, which almost obstructs Billy Twelvetrees' way into the setup with so many other centre options at play.

Centres

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    Jamie Roberts, Wales

    Jamie Roberts may not have been able to lead the Welsh back line to Six Nations glory as he has in the past this year, but what started off as a slow championship for the Racing Metro star gradually gathered momentum.

    Roberts has developed one of those reputations that, even with a few bad games in his recent form locker, can still book him a place in most squads, and we're aware enough of what he can produce in a Lions jersey to include him.

     

    Jonathan Davies, Wales

    Now recovered from the pectoral injury that kept him from the Six Nations stage during the first three weeks of the competition, Jonathan Davies is an obvious face to figure in an assortment of 2014's finest.

    The Welshman showed in the Six Nations closer against Scotland just some glimpses of what he's capable of, and it's only right that the man who so controversially displaced Brian O'Driscoll from the Lions squad in 2013's third, decisive Test get another go. 

     

    Luther Burrell, England

    Very arguably the standout centre of the Six Nations and a revelation for England precisely when their injury-hit back line needed it, Luther Burrell would get the honour of making his British and Irish Lions debut in the same year that he received his first international cap in our theoretical world.

    Scoring three tries in his first five appearances for England, the Northampton Saint is close to the likes of Jeremy Guscott and Will Carling when it comes to beginning one's international tenure with a bang, and the outside centre is value for your money in an offensive and defensive scale.

     

    Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland

    What a happy coincidence it would be if there was a Lions tour this year, so that not only could Brian O'Driscoll end his Ireland career with a Six Nations triumph, but also attempt to land one, final Southern Hemisphere scalp with the Lions.

    Having earned his first experience with the side back in 2001, O'Driscoll is still showing value as he heads into retirement, and his class shown in recent months is only further helped on by the endless knowledge he would have to bestow upon his less seasoned team-mates.

Wingers

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    George North, Wales

    He took his time in picking up pace, but George North would eventually gather up some steam to enjoy a fairly prolific Six Nations, with the winger playing a leading role in each of Wales' wins. 

    Against France, the Northampton Saints star was a refreshing asset in the No. 13 jersey, and while it was just a cameo he received there Down Under last year, Gatland can rest easy knowing that North provides a very legitimate option at outside centre these days, too. 

     

    Andrew Trimble, Ireland 

    Some of the best finishing in the Six Nations was produced by Andrew Trimble, whose revitalised form for Ulster has seen Schmidt left with little other choice than to give the speedster his chance back in the international frame.

    Keeping the likes of Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy and other Irish wingers out of the squad has been and will continue to be no easy task, but the fact that Trimble is accomplishing such a feat shows just how well he's responded to a few years' worth in slumped form. 

     

    Manu Tuilagi, England

    There are murmurs beginning to emerge that with Burrell and Twelvetrees doing quite so well in the centre, Lancaster will look to use Manu Tuilagi as a winger in future, and it's a sentiment we'll go along with here for the sake of the squad.

    There's no doubting the Leicester Tiger's acceleration or strength, which would give him some worth out wide, undoubtedly, but the fact that he can still provide midfield cover simply makes him all the more valuable. 

     

    Alex Cuthbert, Wales

    Alex Cuthbert's Six Nations tournament started strong, with the Cardiff Blue scoring the first try of the competition in the opener against Italy, but it didn't quite carry on in the same free nature.

    That being said, Cuthbert maintained his direct, to-the-point approach all the same, and nigh impossible to slow down once he found his gallop. Such a young player with such fine physical attributes and the international experience he already boasts ca't be omitted from the list.

Full-Backs

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    Mike Brown, England

    Rightfully voted this year's Six Nations Player of the Tournament, Mike Brown finished the tournament as joint-top try scorer alongside Sexton, but was really in a class of his own throughout.

    Clocking up more than 500 metres with ball in hand, this past year has been evidence of the player's evolution to the elite stage, and while one might argue whether or not it can be maintained, he can certainly reap the benefits for now.

    Brown also has the advantage of adding cover for the left wing. 

     

    Rob Kearney, Ireland

    Arguably the safest pair of hands under a high ball that Europe has to offer, Leinster's Rob Kearney has come back to see some of his best form under Schmidt, following a brief spell where his former greatness had withered.

    Now looking back to his best, the Irish No. 15 can look to feature in his third Lions squad, and were it not for Brown's ridiculously high standards of late, he'd be a shoo-in for the starting place. 

     

    Stuart Hogg, Scotland

    With Leigh Halfpenny nursing a dislocated shoulder, Stuart Hogg is left to step into a Lions squad for the second time in his career, or at least he would if this particular tour were real.

    Despite Scotland's miserable Six Nations and the fact that Hogg's reputation was tarnished by the red card he saw in Week 5 against Wales, the Glasgow Warrior still showed glimpses of the magic he's capable of, which is only better off being nurtured in the company of other big talents.