Monday, 1 April 2013

My Lions 37

British and Irish Lions Rugby Tour 2013

With Lions coach Warren Gatland close to finalising his Lions touring party, April 20th the current date I felt the time was right to put my own head on the line by attempting to second guess the affable kiwi.
As per the title I am predicting a touring party of 37 based on the previous  number selected in 2009 being seen as a relative success in terms of squad members being involved and the numbers required for the fixtures ahead. In hindsight Clive Woodward's decision in 2005 to select a squad of 44 has been cited as a mistake in the aftermath by some squad members who felt the larger than normal number put emphasis on the back trackers and the rest divide. The number selected will then likely be between 35 and 38 based on what Gatland feels he needs in each section. I've plumped for 37 with a breakdown of 2 full selections and an extra tighthead prop, loosehead prop, hooker, backrow, fly half, a scrum half and a utility back capable of filling in 11 to 15.
   Considering first the main candidates for loosehead prop it appears to be a scrap for 3 slots between Gethin Jenkins, Cian Healy, Paul James, Ryan Grant and Joe Marler with Andrew Sheridan of Toulon potentially upsetting the international applecart. My starter taking account of International and club form would be Irelands Cian Healy followed closely by Paul James with an exception also being made for Andrew Sheridan who if selected is liable to miss the opening game of the tour in Hong Kong due to the Top 14 playoff's. James should make the plane in my view for the impressive nature of his cameo's in the 6 nations particularly in the final game against England. Sheridan despite the practicalities gets the nod from me due to the trees he has consistently pulled up in the Top 14 and Heineken Cup with Toulon.
Moving to hooker Gatland's own former playing position 3 players are likely to be selected with the 3rd the most difficult to convincingly adjudicate over. In my mind Richard Hibbard and Rory Best find themselves streets ahead of the competition with the battle left for 3rd choice hooker at least at the beginning of the tour. The two most heavyweight candidates remaining are Dylan Hartley, Tom Youngs and Matthew Rees with Tom Youngs getting the nod due to his strong abilities in the scrum and around the park . Pushed for a starter I believe Hibbard will edge everyone based on his superior throwing stats this six nations.
Tighthead prop in the northern hemisphere is primarily seen as a man whose main role is to hold up the scrum and do damage within that sphere where possible. Against an Australian team who enjoy moving the ball wide each man will need to contribute in ball carrying as well as to show discipline in ruck situations. With this in mind Adam Jones seems certain to feature ahead of Euan Murray of Scotland with either Dan Cole or Mike Ross following up the rear. I'll Plump for Cole who is more of a running threat and concedes less penalties than Ross. A strong Heineken Cup campaign may push Cole higher in the pecking order however as of today I have him 3rd in line.
Second row may well prove to be Gatlands toughest call with competitors from all countries in line for the four spots. A quick and dirty list includes former captain Paul O'Connell, captain elect Alun Wyn Jones, ball carrying sensations Richie Gray and Joe Launchbury and two solid as rocks lineout competitors Donnacha Ryan and Jim Hamilton. In a mix and match type consideration of the options I would plump for O'Connell starting alongside Alun Wyn Jones with Jim Hamilton and Joe Launchbury making up the group. Ryan is incredibly close to all of the players selected and would undoubtedly be the next cab off the rank were the squad a 38 man squad.
Backrow is an area Gatland has acknowledged there is almost too much talent and leadership at his disposal hence the allocation of an extra spot. The Welsh trio of Tipuric, Warburton and Faletau are sure to make the squad with currently crocked flanker and last years player of the championship Dan Lydiate also odds on. The other slots in my opinion should go to Sean O'Brien, Chris Robshaw and Scotland and Montpellier number 8 Johnnie Beattie also making the cut. My starters are Robshaw, Faletau and Warburton with O'Brien providing the impact from the bench.
Moving to the backs and a tussle and a half for Gatland to decide on at scrum half. Prior to the 6 nations Ben Youngs seemed to be in pole position with England colleague Danny Care also pushing hard. The emergence of Greig Laidlaw, Conor Murray and the resurgence of Mike Phillips have muddied the water slightly though with the England pair and Murray having the benefit of a Heineken Cup quarter final to push their cause further there may still be further changes to the final 3. For what it is worth I think Ben Youngs will be the starting lions scrum half ahead of Mike Phillips and Conor Murray. The selection of Murray ahead of Laidlaw is a tight call with Murrays penchant for yellow card making closer still. The Munster youngsters running threat combined with his own ability to act as a playmaker helping him to edge it for me.
Fly half has Jonathan Sexton a player who if he stayed fit had the potentially to dramitacally improve Irelands final position in the 6 Nations. Next best for me are Owen Farrell and Dan Biggar with the latter particularly underrated and definitely deserving of a squad spot in my view. Pushed for an alternative I would pick Toby flood a truly solid footballer.
Moving to inside centre a position where strong competition is lacking. My picks are Brad Barritt who after 3 games had more tackles than any other back in the 6 nations and Jamie Roberts who has proven ability at the highest level. Barritt to start initially here and prove an important defensive weapon for the tourists.
At 13 it is difficult to look past Brian O'Driscoll also my choice for captain. As a reserve I would chose Manu Tuilagi based on a cracking performance against New Zealand in November and for several more for Leicester throughout the last 2 seasons.
On the wing and based on known ability I feel Tommy Bowe deserves selection should he prove his fitness. His strike rate, game acumen and pace make him an outstanding asset. My other 3 wingers are Alex Cuthbert, George North  and the wildcard of the group pending fitness Simon Zebo. Starting test wings are North and Cuthbert with Bowe and Zebo challenging vigorously throughout the tour.  The remaining 3 slots are designated for 2 full backs and a utility back player. The first one of these is easily picked with kicker and full back supreme Leigh Halfpenny taking his place on the test team. In selecting a back up for Halfpenny I have reluctantly opted for England international Mike Brown ahead of Rob Kearney who has been ever so slightly flaky in his form this season.
My final position for the tour goes to Scot Stuart Hogg whose versatility from centre to wing to fullback combined with his current confidence make him my final squad pick .

Notable unfortunates : Rob Kearney, Donnacha Ryan, Greig Laidlaw, Tim Visser, Ben Morgan, Alex Goode, Gethin Jenkins, Jonathan Davies.

Final Numbers
Wales - 14
Ireland- 9
England- 10
Scotland- 4

Test team
Wales - 8
England - 3
Ireland - 4

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