Tom English: Lions guessing game almost over

TOMORROW evening Warren Gatland will gather his selectors together for one last meeting before announcing the 2013 Lions the following morning, probably 37 players in number with Sam Warburton largely expected to captain the party in Australia.

Warren Gatland, Head Coach of The British & Irish Lions. Picture: Getty

Thank the Lord, for it has seemed like years since we all started speculating about the make-up of Gatland’s group. As Paul O’Connell, the other major contender for the leadership of the squad, said recently, the countdown to a Lions tour starts earlier and earlier with the passing years and each one is more hyped than the one that went before.

If you can put to one side the rampant commercialism of a Lions tour and the fact that Gatland will have about 15 minutes with his players before they jet off to Hong Kong to play the Barbarians, then this is a magical time for the game in these islands. The speculation about who has made it and who hasn’t has been a riot. All the while the players tell you that they haven’t given possible selection a minute’s thought but half of them – maybe all of them – are telling porkies. They don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to jinx it. Many things have changed in the game – and changed for the worse – but the accolade of being a (Test) Lion remains the ultimate.

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These past months Gatland has been virtually strapped into an interrogator’s chair with a light shone in his face in the pursuit of clues. Scraps, even. From crumbs entire theses have been formed. Anyone who knows Gatland will be aware that the man has a sense of mischief about him and a penchant for the unpredictable. The very first squad he named as an international coach – Ireland versus France in 1998 – contained the name of a club player, Andy Ward, that was so far off the radar that he could have been in a different solar system compared to where he was, which was a backwater of Ulster rugby. Ward was picked to start in the back-row in Paris, a game that many in Ireland feared would bring a historic battering. A century of points was mooted and not all the portents of doom came from hysterical voices. In the end, Ireland lost by just a few points and Ward played magnificently. Gatland is the coach who picked Brian O’Driscoll to play for Ireland before he’d even made his Leinster debut. Gatland is a fearless selector. Nobody should be surprised if there’s a bolter named on Tuesday.

There is no point in predicting who will make it. We’re better off saying who should rather than who will. So, let’s get into it.

This, by my reckoning, is about the 14th Lions squad I have named in various forms since the first weekend of the Six Nations but each version has had Leigh Halfpenny as the leading full-back and most of the latter ones have had Stuart Hogg and not Rob Kearney accompanying him.

It was instructive to hear the doyen, Ian McGeechan, emphasising the importance of form over reputation in the selection of a Lions squad. Hogg has the form and Kearney, while a quality player, hasn’t produced his best stuff this season. Form wins. Hogg is one of six Scots in this squad.

Two of the wings are shoo-ins; George North and Alex Cuthbert. There’s been talk of Tommy Bowe making a last-ditch bid following his recovery from a long-term injury. That’s the other great dilemma for a Lions coach. How many pedigree players who are only just recovering from injury can he go with? Richie Gray comes into this category. North, Cuthbert, Simon Zebo and Sean Maitland would be the chosen four here. Maitland is a demonstrably better player than the bookmakers’ favourite, Tim Visser.

The midfield virtually picks itself. Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi are certainties. James Hook is playing superbly for Perpignan and warrants inclusion, too. His versatility at 12, 13 and 10 could be invaluable. Hook is a class act even though he has become a bit-part player for Wales.

Jonny Sexton will be one of the stand-offs but the second is a puzzler. Jonny Wilkinson has a case but doesn’t sound like a man who wants to travel. Owen Farrell, maybe. Or Rhys Priestland. Now fit again and a favourite of the Lions coach, Priestland on his best form wouldn’t be a bad option as understudy to Sexton.

At scrum-half it should be Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs and Greig Laidlaw who, with his goal-kicking dependability, gets the nod ahead of Conor Murray. Laidlaw versus Murray is one of many tight calls.

The front and back rows offer head-wrecking possibilities and a touch of the unknown as to what Gatland actually thinks of the chances of players based in France. Their season ends lamentably late – their domestic final happening on the same day as the Lions play the Barbarians in Hong Kong – but there are guys in France whose claims surely cannot be overlooked.

Clearly, Andrew Sheridan doesn’t expect to be selected but he should be. Sheridan has been a one-man wrecking ball to the Australian scrum in the past and the sight of him in the Lions squad wouldn’t enthuse the Wallabies a great deal. Sheridan is likely to have massive commitments as the French season gets ever more intense but he’s a player who could do real damage if the Lions can get him on the plane in one piece. If.

Gethin Jenkins is another. He’s not a regular for his club but is for his country and he still has it. Cian Healy, Adam Jones, Dan Cole and Ryan Grant could complete the props list, as long as Gatland goes for six instead of five. Surely no such debate at hooker, though. Richard Hibbard and Rory Best are the leading two. Tom Youngs is considered the third in line.

In the second row, there’s a numbers question again. Four or five? O’Connell, Gray, Ian Evans and Alun-Wyn Jones top most lists. Geoff Parling or Donncha Ryan might squeeze in as the fifth. Frankly, Nathan Hines would be the roughhouse option of choice but he may have other things on his mind. His wife is expecting twins in June.

Thirty down, seven to go.

The clear-cuts ones are Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau. Then there’s Tom Croft, a thoroughbred of South Africa in 2009. One more flanker required from Ryan Jones, Kelly Brown and Chris Robshaw. This is the classic illustration of the savage competition that exists. All fine players, all international captains. The heart says Brown, the head says Jones.

Last spot, to a back-up No 8. Jamie Heaslip? No. That brings us back to the form versus reputation argument. Johnnie Beattie has a big chance here if form is the barometer. We say Beattie makes it while knowing that so much of what we think that’s in Gatland’s mind may not be.

The wonder of the Lions. Sit back and marvel at Tuesday’s spectacle.