Preview: British & Irish Lions tour 2013

 
 

With the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia just around the corner, our rugby experts predict their starting XV for the first Test in Brisbane

Seán O’Neill

This summer’s British and Irish Lions tour to Australia has become all the more significant as the touring side has not returned home successful from each of their last three trips to the southern hemisphere. For the first time since 1997, the Lions will enter the test series as marginal favourites. In the last three series, they have faced the reigning world champions twice, and in 2005 they faced an All-Black team who were the best side in the world.

With so much talent across the four nations, Warren Gatland’s selection will be crucial. One position in which this abundance of talent is evident is at fullback. Rob Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Goode were all top performers for their respective sides in the Six Nations, with Halfpenny to be selected for the first Test match on the basis of his impressive form towards the end of the Six Nations.

The two wing positions look more clear-cut. Chris Ashton appeared to be out-of-sorts during the Six Nations, so Alex Cuthbert and George North are the clear choices after Wales’demolition of England, although Tommy Bowe could sneak in if he recovers on time.

In the centre, Brian O’Driscoll seems nailed on for the number 13 jersey as he attempts to banish the memory of previous Lions defeats and Jamie Roberts looks likely to take the inside-centre position, as his size and strength will compliment O’Driscoll’s agility and genius.

The question of who should be the starting flyhalf in Brisbane is also being keenly debated, with Sexton getting the nod on the basis of his form over the last three years. At scrum-half, MikePhilips did not look at his powerful best in the spring so Ben Youngs could be Gatland’s choice to control the pace.

In the front row, Cian Healy and Adam Jones seem the only options for the prop positions while Rory Best looks to be the most efficient hooker in the northern hemisphere, with a possible captain’s role. If Paul O’Connell, also a potential captain, can prove his fitness over the coming weeks, he is a certain starter. His partner in the second-row must be the imposing Richie Gray, with the Scot impressing at the set-piece in the Six Nations.

The back-row is an area where many world-class players look likely to lose out, as this is unquestionably the strongest sector to choose from. Tom Croft was his side’s best forward until their Cardiff mauling, but still deserves the blind-side role, while Sam Warburton is a certain starter at open-side.

Jamie Heaslip’s form suffered significantly during the Six Nations and he looks to have relinquished the final position to teammate Sean O’Brien, who simply cannot be left out of the side based on his consistent form and ability to break the gain line constantly.

Starting XV: Healy, Best, Adam Jones, Gray, O’Connell (c), Croft, Warburton, O’Brien, Youngs, Sexton, North, Roberts, O’Driscoll, Bowe, Halfpenny

Killian Woods

Lions’ coach Warren Gatland admitted recently that 24-25 players are consistently featuring in his meetings with his coaching staff, meaning there are roughly ten spots yet to be filled. However, some areas of the squad are more crystal clear than others.

Only Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny are in contention for fullback. While Halfpenny deserves the berth for his consistency, Kearney could be a better tactical choice depending Wallabies’ game plan. On the wing, Alex Cuthbert and Tim Visser are the in-form players and both will present the Australians with an array of questions to answer.

Similarly, the battle for the two places at centre should be straight forward. Brian O’Driscoll deserves the captaincy, let alone the outside centre role. While Jonathan Davies is the best option at inside-centre, Gatland will most likely persist with his favourite battering ram, Jamie Roberts, at 12 who, regardless of the praise he received during the Six Nations, was average at best.

Jonathan Sexton is another player who deserves a starting berth, but injuries have supplemented his rivals to boost their credentials; none more so than England’s Owen Farrell. The 21-year old’s kicking game is metronomic, although his ability to link play is not of the same quality as Sexton’s.

If he appears to be making a bigger impact on the European stage, then he may establish himself as the starter over Sexton.  Meanwhile, there is no doubt that supplying either Farrell or Sexton from scrumhalf will be Mike Philips. He may be divisive, but Gatland trusts him, and his trust is not misplaced.

Moving into the pack, the Lions are particularly weak at number eight due to the waning form of Jamie Heaslip and Toby Faletau, although, that deficit is balanced by the strength in depth of the flankers available. Both positions will be hotly contested and will depend on performances during the warm up games. Tom Wood deserves the blindside role, but any of Robshaw, O’Brien or Warburton all have valid arguments for their inclusion on the opposite side.

The big question about the pack is about Paul O’Connell’s inclusion. His heroic performance against Harlequins a fortnight ago puts him in the running, but his history with Gatland will probably count against him in the end. One of Richie Gray or Joe Launchbury will probably be paired with Alun Wyn Jones, who was astounding during the Six Nations.

There is a feeling that the front three is one of the main areas in which Gatland is completely undecided. Due to his work in the loose, Cian Healy would be an excellent option, while Adam Jones is a stalwart in the scrum and would bring a wealth of experience to the front-row.

At hooker, the Lions appear very weak. Tom Youngs deserves the chance due to his international form, but Rory Best will probably trump him due to Gatland preferring experience in such a key area of the scrum.

Starting XV: Healy, Best, Adam Jones, Gray, Alun Wyn Jones, Wood, O’Brien, Heaslip, Philips, Sexton, Visser, Roberts, O’Driscoll (c), Cuthbert, Halfpenny

Shane Hannon

This summer’s Tests against Australia come at an interesting time. It has been said that the heart of the Lions side will be crimson after Wales secured their fourth Six Nations Championship since 2005. Leigh Halfpenny is a dead-cert at fullback after his performances in Wales’ campaign earned him the Six Nations Player of the Tournament.

Although youth may not be seen as the best way to win Test matches, Welsh duo Toby Faletau and George North would be inspired choices at number eight and on the wing respectively. If anyone is going to make the call on this duo, it is Wales and Lions coach Warren Gatland. The New Zealander was the forwards coach for the Lions during their 2009 tour of South Africa, and this time round his promotion to head coach has only improved Welsh players’ chances of being involved.

Welsh centre Jamie Roberts was probably being slightly wishful when he said after the final Six Nations game that “it would be great if we could get all 23 (Welsh players) on the plane”. With Gatland indicating his wish to take 37 players with him, that possibility may not be all that hard to believe.

It must be remembered, however, that Wales lost all three of their tests in South Africa last summer and Lions teams have always performed better when all four nations are properly represented. In fact, there could well be an Irish captain, as it would be a fitting tribute if Brian O’Driscoll was given the role.

The 34 year-old captained the Lions for the 2005 tour of New Zealand, and it would be a testament to the man if he were given a farewell captaincy this summer. With 131 Test caps to his name (the second most-capped player in rugby union history) he will leave an unprecedented legacy not just on the Irish, but on the world stage.

The Irish may not have had the best Six Nations in recent memory, but there are players in the side who you couldn’t look past for the Lions tour. The likes of Cian Healy and Rory Best will be difficult to leave out of the team, and Sean O’Brien’s ball-carrying abilities make him a very attractive prospect at blindside flanker. Paul O’Connell would be an influential figure to have in the Lions dressing-room, and having him on the pitch would do wonders combating Australia’s physicality.

England’s Owen Farrell is a very reliable goal-kicker, something which is so vital at this level of Test rugby. One thing’s for sure, this summer’s tour will be keenly contested and watched very closely. It will provide the springboard for young players to prove their worth and launch themselves into the spotlight, while for the likes of many of the older players, these games may be the perfect end to stellar careers. All will be revealed; let’s hope the Lions can find their roar.

Starting XV: Healy, Best, Adam Jones, Hamilton, O’Connell, O’Brien, Warburton, Faletau, Phillips, Farrell, North, Roberts, O’Driscoll (c), Hogg, Halfpenny

Kevin Beirne

The Lions’ tour down under is older than the world cup by around 99 years, and one of the greatest traditions in sport. This year, Warren Gatland takes his team to Australia to take on an exciting Wallabies side.

With more than two months go to before that first game, it’s hard to predict who will be on the field that day. Injuries, form and a player’s ability to fit the game plan are all factors which will ensure that this proposed starting team will not be accurate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to speculate.

In the front-row, it’s hard to look past Cian Healy and Adam Jones as the two props. Rory Best seems to be the favourite for hooker, although his inconsistent lineouts mean Tom Youngs could sneak in to the team.

Paul O’Connell’s performance against Harlequins showed his value as a leader and a player, and a partnership of himself and Alun Wyn Jones is an exciting prospect. Scotland’s Richie Gray will hope that he can crash the party, but his lack of big-game experience could cost him a place.

The back-row is probably the most interesting area of selection for Gatland. A cruciate ligament injury to David Pocock will allow the Lions coaching staff a few more hours of sleep a night, as they will expect to dominate in this area.

In every Lions tour, there is a relatively inexperienced player who steps up to the plate, and this time around it will be Justin Tupuric at seven. Sean O’Brien should take on the number eight shirt over Jamie Heaslip, who has struggled to find the form that made him the Lions’ starter in 2009.

There are an abundance of options for blindside flanker, and Stephen Ferris is arguably the most talented of the lot, but his inability to stay fit means he is unlikely to play. It would not be a surprise to see Tom Wood picked, but Gatland will probably stick with what he knows and choose Dan Lydiate.

The halfback positions are both two horse races, with Philips set to battle it out with Ben Youngs for the number nine shirt. Youngs is in the better form at the moment, but Philips is a personal favourite of the coach. At outhalf, Jonathon Sexton will start ahead of Owen Farrell, if he can overcome his recent injury woes.

A centre partnership of Brian O’Driscoll and Jonathan Davies seems to make the most sense, although there is a case to be made for Manu Tuilagi’s inclusion, while Leigh Halfpenny is the best choice for fullback at the moment.

On the wings, George North is surely set to start, but his partner remains less clear. Craig Gilroy, Tommy Bowe, Chris Ashton, Tim Visser, Simon Zebo and Alex Cuthbert are all in the running, with Bowe’s experience winning out.

Starting XV: Healy, Best, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, O’Connell, Lydiate, Tupuric, O’Brien, Philips, Sexton, North, Davies, O’Driscoll (c), Bowe, Halfpenny

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