Tuesday 19 March 2013

Lions squad post 6 Nations

Everyone's playing the Lions squad guessing game at the moment, so I thought I'd join in and make some ill-informed guesses based on what I've seen (and probably partly based on what I've heard from others more knowledgable than me).

Looking at the options available, some positions immediately leap out as having an embarrassment of riches, while others are weak. Strong positions include loose head prop, openside flanker, scrum half, and the back three; on the other hand, there's very little strength in depth in the second row, number 8 or inside centre, while out-half/fly-half/stand-off looks worrying if you take away Sexton and Farrell.

As always with Lions squads, there are a lot of very good players who will be left behind. Currently only Ferris is definitely out through injury, and that'll inevitably change, so lots of others will get a call-up. But if I were Warren Gatland and I had to pick the squad tomorrow, this would be what I'd pick.

Loose head prop
Close, this one. Healy is a bit more destructive than Jenkins and offers slightly more in the loose, although he has a tendency to give away penalties. I would be happy with either starting. If Alex Corbisiero can prove his fitness and get some good matches in for London Irish before the end of the season, I'd have him in there too, despite having missed the entire 6 Nations. Ryan Grant has been the best of Scotland's props and Vunipola can't be far away from the squad either. It's a position of strength with lots of decent options.
On the pitch: Healy
On the bench: Jenkins
On the plane: Corbisiero
On standby: Grant
On the beach: Marler, Vunipola, Sheridan, James

The first of the problem positions. Going into the 6 Nations, Rory Best was the clear pick and a brilliant performance against Wales bolstered his position further. However, since then he's gone off the boil and his form is worrying. Perhaps I'm overly traditional, but for me front row players need to be good at their specialism first and anything they do in the loose is a bonus. Best is very good in the scrum and terrific in the loose, but to claim the Test spot his throwing will need to be more consistent. The form man is Hibbard who has been excellent for Ospreys and Wales. I've always been a fan of Ross Ford and he may just pip Tom Youngs for the third spot, but that's very much a midweek job.
On the pitch: Best
On the bench: Hibbard
On the plane: Ford
On standby: Tom Youngs
On the beach: Hartley, Rees, Owens

Tight head prop
The Lions scrum should, in theory, be dominant against the Wallabies. I'm a huge fan of Dan Cole but Jones has the experience and consistency - he's not one to go backwards (although Cian Healy gave him a rough time of it). After those two, the third position is very much a standby place - Euan Murray may travel even though he's had a mediocre Championship.
On the pitch: Adam Jones
On the bench: Cole
On the plane: Murray
On standby: Ross
On the beach: Cross

Second row
There are no standout locks this year. It's very competitive with at least seven players challenging for a place in the squad. Paul O'Connell is still the outstanding northern hemisphere second row forward of his generation and will surely travel if fit; if he's up to anything near 100% he will start. Perhaps I'm biased but I'd put him alongside his Munster colleague Donnacha Ryan. Joe Launchbury is good enough to go and Geoff Parling has also had a good championship. Of the Scots, Jim Hamilton is the form player and it would not be a surprise to see him travel, but Richie Gray's star is waning and he may miss out.
On the pitch: Ryan, O'Connell
On the bench: Launchbury
On the plane: Parling, Alun Wyn Jones
On standby: Hamilton, Gray
On the beach: Lawes, Hines, Charteris, McCarthy, O'Callaghan, Evans

Blind-side flanker
We have loads of superb options in the back row although most of them are flankers/all-rounders rather than No 8 specialists. Ryan Jones, if he stays fit, travels, as does Kelly Brown who is in excellent form; Dan Lydiate also deserves a place based on 2012 form alone. However, for the starting XI for the first Test I suspect Warren Gatland may try to include both Chris Robshaw and Sam Warburton in the XV, which might well see Robshaw starting at 6.
On the pitch: (Robshaw)
On the bench: Ryan Jones
On the plane: Lydiate, Kelly Brown
On standby: O'Mahony, Denton
On the beach: Croft, Haskell, Ferris

Open-side flanker
Justin Tipuric is the name on everyone's lips following his demolition of England and he may be one of the late movers to grab a place in the squad. Even so, I suspect Warburton and Robshaw have the starting 7 spot sewn up between them. The Irish back row have been so-so of late, so Peter O'Mahony just misses out (his time will come) but Sean O'Brien's versatility may earn him a place in the midweek team - he had a busy 6 Nations and sits proudly near the top of most of the stats tables.
On the pitch: Robshaw, Warburton
On the bench:
On the plane: O'Brien, Tipuric
On standby:
On the beach:

Number 8
Toby Faletau has had a great 6 Nations and will surely start. Of the others, I rather suspect that Jamie Heaslip may have played his way out of contention in a competitive back row. Ryan Jones, Sean O'Brien and Kelly Brown can all play at number 8 (Jones and Brown are possible starting options) and surely they are all ahead of Heaslip in the pecking order. It's a shame for the Irish captain, but unless he puts in a monster display for Leinster in the Amlin, he'll be staying at home.
On the pitch: Faletau
On the bench:
On the plane:
On standby: Heaslip, Wood
On the beach: Easter, Beattie, Morgan

Scrum half
Another position of strength with four excellent options - one will have to miss out. It'll be a shame for whoever doesn't travel. My slight preference would be for the exciting Ben Youngs to start - his ball supply is quick and inventive - although Phillips will likely start. Greig Laidlaw and Conor Murray have both been in excellent form in the 6 Nations and either could go. Danny Care has no chance of making the squad.
On the pitch: Ben Youngs
On the bench: Laidlaw
On the plane: Phillips
On standby: Conor Murray
On the beach: Care

I must admit to being very, very impressed with England's young half-back combination and I would love to see a Youngs-Farrell combination. It works for England who always look like they have the potential to score tries even if the execution lets them down in midfield (especially with the rather lumpen Brad Barritt). Jonny Sexton obviously goes as well and he is, in truth, the more likely starter. Those two are miles ahead of anyone else; I'm not convinced Dan Biggar has done enough to earn a place on the plane, so Toby Flood may go, although there's always the chance that someone like Wilkinson could end up touring. Or is there a possibility of using Laidlaw as an alternative 10 and leaving Flood/Biggar behind to save a space?
On the pitch: Farrell
On the bench: Sexton
On the plane: Flood (or Laidlaw)
On standby: Biggar
On the beach: Wilkinson, Weir, Ruaridh Jackson, Paddy Jackson, O'Gara

Inside centre
To counter my first choice half back pairing, I'd go with experience and reputation (which don't count for nothing). Jamie Roberts has done it all before and isn't a player to let the side down. There's also the possibility that Tuilagi or Davies may be picked at 12. While I described Barritt as "lumpen" above, he's also a terrific defensive centre, so he may well be needed to counter the dancing Australian midfield. He's good enough to go. Matt Scott is the best of the rather limited options elsewhere. Luke Marshall - described by some as a "bolter" before he even made his international début - hasn't done anything to reduce his chances of travelling, but I'd suggest he'll probably just miss out.
On the pitch: Roberts
On the bench:
On the plane: Barritt
On standby: Scott
On the beach: Lamont, Luke Marshall, D'Arcy

Outside centre
Surely the final act for great man? O'Driscoll remains one of the best centres in world rugby and a player the Wallabies will genuinely fear. He also turns it on for the big occasion. Centre is a pretty limited area for the Lions this year and BOD towers above all other options. It might seem a little passé to suggest the old warriors Roberts and BOD in the centre, but without any outstanding alternatives (I don't buy into the Tuilagi hype) it might be the best combination.
On the pitch: O'Driscoll
On the bench: 
On the plane: Davies, Tuilagi
On standby: Twelvetrees
On the beach: Earls, Max Evans

George North definitely starts on the left. Alex Cuthbert is most likely to start as well, although I'd love to see a wildcard option like Corkman Simon Zebo who has been superb all season. Tommy Bowe is a player whose injury might, unfortunately  have taken his chances of making the squad. It's hard to choose between the Scots wingers but one will travel. Chris Ashton, however, is in terrible form (his lame attempt at a tackle on Wesley Fofana summed his year up) and with plenty of world class options elsewhere, I'd confidently predict that he'll miss out entirely. If Gatland wants to play Stuart Hogg, then he may find himself at 14 (or even Halfpenny on the wing). We have a silly amount of options here.
On the pitch: North, Zebo
On the bench:
On the plane: Cuthbert, Visser
On standby: Bowe, Maitland
On the beach: Ashton, Gilroy

Full back
Leigh Halfpenny is the first name on the teamsheet and it probably makes sense to play him in his best position at 15. Hogg will also be involved (and a possible starter), and Kearney's experience will get him on the plane even if his involvement might be restricted to midweek this time around. He's not gone off the boil as much as others have suggested, but he's not a starter with Halfpenny around.
On the pitch: Halfpenny
On the bench: Hogg
On the plane: Kearney
On standby: Goode
On the beach: Byrne, Williams, Brown, Foden

Lots of questions, lots of options. Much may change over the next few weeks (we have the Heineken Cup quarter finals to look forward to, the usual league matches, and injuries are inevitable as well). The only positions that really worry me are hooker and fly half; elsewhere we look reasonably strong.

The squad I'd like to see, as of 19 March:
Healy, Jenkins, Corbisiero;
Best, Hibbard, Ford;
A Jones, Cole, Murray;
Ryan, O'Connell, Launchbury, Parling, AW Jones;
Warburton, Robshaw, Tipuric, R Jones, Lydiate, O'Brien, Faletau, K Brown;
B Youngs, Phillips, Laidlaw;
Farrell, Sexton;
Roberts, O'Driscoll, Barritt, Tuilagi, Davies;
North, Cuthbert, Zebo, Visser;
Halfpenny, Hogg, Kearney

That's 39 (15 Welsh, 9 English, 9 Irish, 6 Scots). If I need to lose a couple, it'd be Parling (or Lydiate) and Visser (or Davies or Kearney) who'd get the chop.

My starting XV:
1. Healy (I)
2. Best (I)
3. A Jones (W)
4. Ryan (I)
5. O'Connell (I)
6. Robshaw (E)
7. Warburton (W)
8. Faletau (W)
9. B Youngs (E)
10. Farrell (E)
11. North (W)
12. Roberts (W)
13. O'Driscoll (I)
14. Zebo (I)
15. Halfpenny (W)
Subs: Jenkins (W), Hibbard (W), Cole (E), Launchbury (E), R Jones (W), Laidlaw (S), Sexton (I), Hogg (S)

Bring it on.