THE good news for Lions coach Warren Gatland is that his merry men are off to Australia in the summer.
Were they headed to New Zealand or South Africa, he’d be a gibbering wreck refusing to come out of his darkened, padded cell after a series of summer tours and autumn internationals which saw the Home Nations routed by the Southern Hemisphere giants and even occasionally brought down a peg or two by the minnows.
The one ray of light was, of course, England’s thumping win over New Zealand. Even then there are lingering doubts over the Kiwis’ fitness for that fight. These will soon be dispelled or proven, but for the moment they make the four-yearly pre-Six Nations Lions predictions even more testing than usual – and it’s never easy. I went back through various rugby magazines and newspapers looking at predictions of yesteryear, and the remarkable thing was just how awry the pundits were, whether former coaches or rugby writers. I couldn’t find any predicted Lions squad where more than 50 per cent of the pre-Five/Six Nations picks made the plane.
There are three good reasons for this. Although Gatland promised to be impartial after he conceded that Graham Henry took far too many substandard Welsh players in 2001, the first is national prejudice. Even at this stage the supposedly objective views from London, Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh are heavily skewed by home-town syndrome.
The second major factor is injuries, and there will be plenty of these before and after the tour starts (in 2009, three original picks had to withdraw with injuries sustained between the squad announcement and the plane leaving, while another player was suspended. Once on tour, nine injured players left South Africa and needed to be replaced).
The third and most important factor affecting selection is of course Six Nations form, with the tournament winners being disproportionately represented, sometimes absurdly so.
So, without further ado, here is our pre-Six Nations Lions squad (it’s a 37-man squad, as in 2009). By all means take issue with our selection – but only if you are willing to go on the record with your squad. Our website and letters pages await!
FULL-BACK (2): Leigh Halfpenny is the obvious frontrunner after a standout autumn, especially as Gatland rates the wee fella, who has a big, accurate boot. Irishman Rob Kearney, pictured, had only played 32 minutes of rugby this season before his recent return from a back injury, but is also almost sure to travel if he can remain fit.
SCOTTISH INTEREST: Stuart Hogg is a dangerous broken-field runner and could contest the second spot if Kearney is injured, but there are other contenders such as Englishmen Alex Goode and Mike Brown, plus dark horse Lee Byrne, who was the starting Lions No.15 four years ago and is playing brilliantly at Clermont.
WINGS (4): There are no obvious starters here. Welshmen George North, above right, and Alex Cuthbert are both off-form and Tommy Bowe’s injury raises doubts over his involvement. Luke Fitzgerald is coming good again, as is Chris Ashton, but there are four prolific bolters who have already forced their way into contention: Ulsterman Craig Gilroy, Munsterman Simon Zebo, Osprey Eli Walker and Wasps flier Christian Wade.
SCOTTISH INTEREST: Both natural finishers, Tim Visser and Sean Maitland are prolific try-scorers who could make it into this squad if they get enough ball in space and if Visser can allay fears about his defensive shortcomings.
CENTRES (4): There are four standout centres – Welshmen Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, plus Manu Tuilagi and Brian O’Driscoll – all of whom should go if fit. The back-up will probably be Brad Barritt, pictured, with versatile Irishmen Keith Earls or Tommy Bowe available if necessary.
SCOTTISH INTEREST: Sadly, unlikely.
STAND-OFFS (2): Johnny Sexton, right, is the main man, and after that there’s a whole queue of possibles headed by Owen Farrell but including the misfiring Toby Flood, Dan Biggar and James Hook. Surely to God they can’t take veterans Jonny Wilkinson or the resurgent Ronan O’Gara, while Rhys Priestland and Freddie Burns are both struggling to be fit for the tour.
SCOTTISH INTEREST: Again, unlikely.
SCRUM-HALVES (3): Another difficult position. Mike Phillips is playing like a drain but is such a class act he will probably go anyway, with two from bullocking Irishman Conor Murray and the nippy English duo of Danny Care, right, and Ben Youngs getting the nod. Eoin Reddan’s slick, intelligent service makes him an outside bet, as does Tavis Knoyle’s combative play.
SCOTTISH INTEREST: Henry Pyrgos is progressing well, but will have to go some to figure.
PROPS (5): Cian Healy, right, is bolted on for the loosehead, while Gethin Jenkins will probably go if fit because he can play on both sides if necessary (a caveat is that like most French clubs Toulon won’t release Jenkins if they are in the Top 14 final on 1 June, the day the Lions play the Barbarians in Hong Kong). On the tight, Dan Cole and fit-again Adam Jones are shoo-ins, with injury the only issue.
SCOTTISH INTEREST: The second specialist loosehead is between Ryan Grant and the English pair of Alex Corbisiero or Mako Vunipola, with Gatland already talking up mobile, strong-scrummaging Grant. On the tight, 2009 Lion Euan Murray should contest first replacement status with Irish giant Mike Ross.
HOOKER (3): Rory Best, right, is the runaway favourite for the Test jersey now that Richardt Strauss is injured, with Englishmen Dylan Hartley and Tom Youngs fighting it out with injured 17st 8lb Welshman Richard Hibbard for the second and third spots.
SCOTTISH INTEREST: Ross Ford went as a replacement in 2009 but his dodgy throwing-in means he’ll really struggle this time.
SECOND ROWS (5): This is a fascinating contest. Geoff Parling and Joe Launchbury were immense against New Zealand, while Donnacha Ryan almost single-handedly dismantled the Pumas pack and Luke Charteris impressed in the autumn. Courtney Lawes is fit again, but 2009 starting locks Alun-Wyn Jones and Paul O’Connell are struggling to return from injury, targeting late February and April respectively.
SCOTTISH INTEREST: Despite struggling with Sale, Richie Gray, above right, should go. Al Kellock and Jim Hamilton could conceivably force their way in, while former Lion Nathan Hines has been in superb form for Clermont and is a strong outside bet.
FLANKERS (5): Another difficult area. Facing genuine Aussie No.7s such as David Pocock, Liam Gill and Michael Hooper rather than England and Ireland’s 6.5s, the Lions will need a proper openside. Former “Lions captain in waiting” Sam Warburton should have been that man but his form has fallen off a cliff, and he may even be moved to blindside or the Wales bench to make way for the excellent Justin Tipuric. The other two main options are Steffon Armitage and Ross Rennie, although quite what Gatland does with Chris Robshaw is tricky. We wouldn’t take him but we would definitely include Sean O’Brien. On the blindside, the fit-again Stephen Ferris, above right, is a force of nature, while Tom Wood and the recently-returned Tom Croft will also come into the mix, as could Dan Lydiate if his remarkable recovery from a broken ankle continues.
SCOTTISH INTEREST: If Gatland needs two out-and-out opensides, Ross Rennie could figure.
No.8s (2): Jamie Heaslip, right, is the best No.8 by a country mile but, beyond that, it’s a bunfight that includes two Scots. A year ago Toby Faletau would have been favourite for the second spot but his form has been dire. Ben Morgan is the better of the English options, but Thomas Waldrom will have his supporters.
SCOTTISH INTEREST: David Denton is the sort of mobile, abrasive ball-carrier the Lions will need, but Kelly Brown could be an outside bet as cover across the whole back row and a top tourist.
Why is he a contender? Tries, tries, tries: tons for Edinburgh, two on his Test debut against Fiji, two on his Murrayfield debut against the All Blacks.
How to seal the deal: Needs to prove he’s no longer a defensive liability.
Why is he a contender? Raw pace and a track record of scoring lots of tries against Aussies (holds Super Rugby record with four in a game against the Brumbies).
How to seal the deal: Play for Scotland like he played for Canterbury Crusaders.
Why is he a contender? Because Warren Gatland said so.
How to seal the deal: Take apart Dan Cole, Adam Jones or Mike Ross. Or, more likely, rely on injury.
Why is he a contender? Because he’s mobile, good in the lineout and Scottish.
How to seal the deal: Play this year like he played last year.
Why is he a contender? After Jamie Heaslip, there’s no obvious standout, and Denton is the sort of dynamic ball-carrier who will thrive in Oz.
How to seal the deal: Carry the ball dynamically.
Why is he a contender? Lovely runner from deep who will thrive on hard grounds.
How to seal the deal: Needs to score tries in case Rob Kearney’s back injury reoccurs.