The Lions squad to Tour Australia will be announced by Warren Gatland and his lieutenants tomorrow at 11am – Tuesday April 30th – and 37 players will Tour. The announcement will end the speculation that has been rife since the start of the Six Nations. The European semi-final weekend just gone was the final chance for the players to audition for the trip Down Under. Most of the plane is filled at this stage, but last weekend the coaching team split up for the final time to cast their eyes over proceedings in the RDS, Montpellier and Twickenham and the players in contention had one last opportunity to squeeze their way into the famous red jersey. Akin to the attention paid to tennis player’s Wags during Wimbledon, the cameras honed in on the faces of the Lions coaching staff at each break in play in order to spot a giveaway look, or nod of approval, that would signal someone had done enough. But further speculation was all that could be garnered from the steely expressions and early exits. Now the playing is over it’s an agonising wait for those involved in marginal calls. Gatland and his henchmen will come together again today to finalise selections before facing the media circus tomorrow to break the news of the squad – Tuesdays are rarely this exciting.
After the squad is announced the difficult work begins as they hope to become the first Touring side to record a Test series victory since Ian McGeechan’s men in South Africa in 1997. The Lions, as a sporting brand, need to win but they face an Australian side that will be bolstered by their club’s best domestic Super rugby form in years , all their stars are fighting tooth-and-nail for a Test spot against the visiting Lions. What a Summer Down Under awaits!
My Captain: Paul O’Connell
The talismanic Munster man would be my choice to captain the Lions Down Under. He is a figure in the Martin Johnson mould and his leadership can transform a team, especially one in red. It is no coincidence that a rejuvenated Munster were back where they belong in Europe when O’Connell returned to full fitness. That victory in The Stoop and Saturday’s characteristically valiant effort against Clermont, the best team in the competition, had all the hallmarks of a side led by the monstrous second row. The bookies have stopped taking bets on Sam Warbuton but for me his supreme playing ability was burdened by the Welsh captaincy and he would not be the right choice. Let him tour free from leadership duties and allow him to thrive as a ground-hog number 7, a role that will be instrumental to winning on the hard ground. O’Driscoll will feel hard done by missing out on the captaincy, and it’s a very close call, but Gatland likes his captains to be in the thick of things in the pack and that’s why I think he’ll chose the forward over the centre, even if O’Driscoll can often be found burrowing away at the bottom of rucks. Gatland has said that he is not overly preoccupied with his captains choice and will have no qualms about dropping him if others in that position are playing better but I think that O’Connell will be the first name on the team-sheet and his place will not be threatened on the tour and therefore, of the three candidates, he should captain the side. I believe the arm-band will be given to an Irishman to make sure that there aren’t claims of favouritism leveled at Gatland who has already picked a strong Welsh coaching team.
My Bolter: Ian Madigan
The Lions have always brought a bolter. A bolter is a form player, usually young and often uncapped, who makes the Tour unexpectedly. It is the left-field choice, someone who isn’t an established Test player but whose star is in the ascendancy and who the coaching ticket believe has the right attributes to thrive on the Tour. My choice would be Ian Madigan. Madigan is the form out-half in Europe who operates on and through the gainline. His kicking stats are flawless at present and he is possessed with an insatiable appetite for the try-line that makes him a chronic migraine for those charged with marshaling him for 80 minutes, he invariably makes a break. He can provide cover for fullback and fill in in the centre.
My Squad (38):
Fullbacks (3): Halfpenny, Kearney, Hogg
Wings (4): North, Zebo, Cuthbert, Maitland
Centres (5): O’Driscoll, Roberts, Barritt, Davies, Tuilagi
Outhalves (3): Sexton, Farrell, Madigan
Scrumhalves (3): Phillips, Youngs, Murray
No 8s (2): Faletau, Heaslip
Backrow (4): O’Brien, Warbuton, Wood, Tipuric
Secondrows (5): O’Connell, Hamilton, Wyn Jones, Evans, Parling
Hookers(3): Hibbard, Youngs, Best
Props(6): Healy, Cole, Jenkins, Jones, Cross, Vanikolo
Unlucky to miss out/On stantby:
Richie Gray: The Scottish secondrow’s season was hampered by injury and this allowed his more abrasive teammate Hamilton to step up and take his place on the plane. However, his athleticism could still see him Tour, but I see his teammate as a perfect mid-week captain and another necessary enforcer in the engine room.
Johnny Wilkonson: This man knows how to win crucial tests in Australia. A last minute drop goal to win the series, would you want anyone else? He’s still the master at what he does, but for me he just misses out. That could be a mistake.
Peter O’Mahony: He is the future for Munster. He has captain’s blood flowing in him, a natural leader, but the back-row was just too choc-a-bloc with talent.
Dan Lydiate: Instrumental in the Welsh Grand Slam in 2012 and a firm favourite of Gatland’s but for me he just didn’t have enough top class games to prove his fitness and warrant his selection.
Tommy Bowe: He suffered the same fate in his race against time, he needed Ulster to go further in Europe. But the fact that he is one of the few world-class wingers available for selection he might be given the nod.
My current XV for 1st Test in Brisbane on June 22nd:
15: Leigh Halfpenny 14: George North 13: Brian O’Driscoll 12: Jamie Roberts 11: Alex Cuthbert 10: Johnny Sexton 9: Mike Philips 8:Toby Faletau 7: Sam Warbuton 6: Sean O’Brien 5: Paul O’Connell 4:Geoff Parling 3: Adam Jones 2: Tom Youngs 1: Cian Healy