Re­lease the Lions

Bray People - - SPORT - SIMON NOR­TON

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.

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