Release the Lions
SO THE festive season is over and 2013 is upon us which means 2 things to the front row view. Firstly that those pesky Mayans were wrong and secondly that another Lions tour is just around the corner. With this in mind I thought I'd have a little midseason look at the movers and shakers in the race to claim a coveted red jersey for the trip to Australia.
The British & Irish Lions is a cracking tradition dating back to 1888, although the first official tour wasn't until 1910 to South Africa. The tour that truly captured my particular imagination was the first professional outing again to South Africa in 1997 (the last successful trip). The birth of professionalism had some saying that such a conglomeration had no future but this and the subsequent tour in 2001 proved everyone wrong with supporters travelling in massive numbers.
This year marks the 31st tour with current Welsh coach Warren Gatland at the helm, attempting to secure a first win for the Lions since 1997. So at this stage who looks like they'll be boarding the long haul flight to Oz (with a brief barbaric stop over in Hong Kong) at the end of May?
What better place to start for this particular columnist than with the safety of the front row. The scrum is not a great source of power for the Wallabies so it'll be something that Gatland will want to exploit. The on song Cian Healy has certainly put his hand up for the loose head spot this season with Gethin Jenkins losing ground of late. Alex Corbisiero will also be hoping for a call up, particularly following his destructive performance against a big South African pack in the autumn.
Tight head is an altogether tighter (pardon the pun) affair with several candidates to ponder. Adam Jones has always been the front runner here but his absence through injury has seen the in form Dan Cole take the reigns. You also can't discount the big Scot Euan Murray (the Lions don't play on a Sunday after all) so Mike Ross will have his work (rate) cut out to even make the plane.
There should be two Irish qualified hookers travelling with both Richardt Strauss and Rory Best showing good form in the last few months. Dylan Hartley is another probable although he and Gatland have a little history from two seasons ago with the Kiwi branding Hartley a 'coward'.
At the beginning of the Season I would have had both Paul O'Connell and Richie Gray as shoe-ins for the second row berths. Unfortunately O'Connell's ongoing injury concerns have seen him lose ground to Wales's Alun-Wyn Jones and Gray, while not playing particularly badly, is suffering from his club and country's poor form. Donncha Ryan is well in contention and England's Geoff Parling's lineout work could see him feature. If Gatland is looking for a bolter in the pack he could do worse than bring the destructive Joe Launchbury.
Top quality flankers are in great abundance at the moment. Gatland has suggested that he wants an out and out openside so Chris Robshaw's (albeit slim) chances of captaining the Lions will have taken a blow. To compound this, 'Captain in waiting' Sam Warburton has got his campaign back on track. The form blindside flankers are probably Tom Wood and Dan Lydiate at the moment but if Stephen Ferris returns from his never ending run of injuries he'll be first in line to take the 6 jersey. Sean O'Brien will surely travel with his ability to play both sides and without a huge strength in depth of form number 8s, could be an option there as well.
In this regard Jamie Heaslip is the front runner at the back of the scrum with Ben Morgan waiting in the wings. I've also got a soft spot for Scotland's David Denton but I won't lie, it has a little bit to do with the youtube video of the man shouting 'FENTON' at his dog. He's a player who'll probably need a similar 6 Nations to last year where he was rampant, so fingers crossed he will.
I'm also a big fan of Conor Murray as I think he plays a lot like the best scrum half in the home nations, namely Mike Phillips. But why have the apprentice when you can have the real deal, especially when you have the two nippy English scrum halves Ben Youngs and Danny Care playing out of their skins as back up. Murray is a work in progress and has been improving of late but it remains to be seen whether he can do enough in the second half of the season to feature in Gatland's plans.
Johnny Sexton is probably the only nailed on starter at outhalf. Owen Farrell's performance against New Zealand warrants him a starting berth. Rhys Priestland will have his work cut out to make the plane and may well be gazumped by his Welsh team mate James Hook.
There are quite a few options at centre to consider, especially at 13. Manu Tuilagi is the current favourite to start but with O'Driscoll returning from injury pre 6 Nations you wouldn't bet against the great man making a 4th Lions tour, adding his considerable experience to the fray (possible tour captain?). Jonathon Davies will travel and 2009's tour bolter Keith Earls may feature but his failure to settle on one position will hurt his cause. It'll probably be a straight shoot out between Jamie Roberts and Brad Barritt for inside centre with Roberts needing a strong 6 Nations to re stake his claim.
The wing spots will be hotly contested. Tommy Bowe's injury shouldn't hamper his chances while George North's power should see him travel with his Welsh team mate Alex Cuthbert sitting next to him on the plane. Scotland's Dutch import Tim Visser will hopefully give the highlanders something to shout about. Craig Gilroy may be seen as another bolter but with the swan diving Chris Ashton finding the try line again I've a feeling he could be left out in the cold. Finally let's not forget the unfortunately injury prone Luke Fitzgerald who had a fine showing on his recent return for Leinster. I was reminded of just how good he can be while watching a highlights reel before that match on TG4. A good showing in the next few months could give Gatland further selection headaches.
With only two spots and three serious contenders for full back, competition will be fierce. Leigh Halfpenny is the current favourite following Rob Kearney's Autumnal sabbatical but that could all change during the 6 Nations. Alex Goode's recent man of the match performances also sees him well and truly in the mix.
With all of this in mind it will certainly add even more spice to this years Six Nations with several positions up for grabs.