This week’s rugby press has been dominated by discussions regarding the personnel for this summer’s British Lions tour to Australia. I must say I’ve not been in total agreement with anyone’s picks so far, so I decided to pick my own squad and Test XV.
Before I start my run-down, there are a few ground rules we need to observe, and a few false assumptions which require correction. Firstly, let’s bust a couple of myths:
1. Australia have a weak scrum, so there’s no point in taking strong scrummagers
This is patent nonsense. Australia’s scrum has improved immensely over the past decade. They wouldn’t be one of the top 3 ranked teams in the world if they didn’t have a decent scrum. The Lions will need to dominate this facet of play in order to win the Test series. With the rules and referees’ interpretations the way they are now, the team with the dominant scrum wins the game. It’s as simple as that. Furthermore, a prop’s number one job is to scrummage well. You may be “deadly in the loose”, but that is not your main job, so you’re not getting picked. Sorry.
2. Australia’s rugby pitches are “hard and fast”
Not in the winter they’re not. Australian cricket pitches are hard and fast in the summer. Don’t get these two things mixed up, and don’t pick players on the basis of whether the grass is green and long, or brown and short.
3. Play to their strengths
Finally, before I move on to my selections, a word about picking people out of position. I’m not going to do this. OK, I am. But only once. Usually I’d avoid it, but circumstances dictate. In general I don’t think it’s a good idea to force someone to play somewhere other than their natural position. But if they want to, and they’re very good at it, then that’s OK.
4. The Gatland game plan
Warren Gatland is the Lions Head Coach, and he will dictate the team strategy and we need to consider this when selecting our squad. There is no point in picking players who can’t play Gatlandball. That means big three-quarters to bash the gain line, a blitz defence and a monstrous scrum. It’s crude, simple but effective.
Now we’ve laid the ground rules, let’s cut to the chase. After last weekend’s events at the Millennium Stadium, the selection of a Lions squad is always going to have a distinctly red hue. It is an inescapable fact that Wales blew England apart on Saturday. In a game that was being billed as a “Lions Trial”, there were some casualties from the ranks of the men in white. So I’m not going to apologise for the fact that there are a lot of Welshmen in my squad. They say form is temporary and class is permanent, so if you’ve just won back-to-back Six Nations Championships then it’s fair to say that class and form are both catered for.
Leigh Halfpenny (Test XV)
Leigh Halfpenny has been peerless throughout Wales’ last two winning championship seasons. He is the complete package in attack and defence. Kearney has been playing in an Irish team decimated by injury, but he cannot match Halfpenny’s defensive qualities and lacks a few yards of pace. Hogg has impressed in the championship but he came off a distant second when he faced Halfpenny at Murrayfield.
George North (Test XV)
Alex Cuthbert (Test XV)
Over the past two seasons Alex Cuthbert has proved to be one of the world’s most clinical finishers. He may only get 2 or 3 chances per game, but he rarely fluffs them. George North can bust tackles and hand off at will. Add that to an ice-cold temperament and heroic defensive capabilities and you have the complete modern back-three player. Big things were expected of Visser but he hasn’t set the world alight over the past couple of months. I’ve included a wild card in the form of Ireland’s Zebo. He was injured for most of the championship but his dazzling display of footballing ability against Wales on the opening weekend makes him an outside chance of coming through on the rails over the course of the tour.
Brian O’Driscoll (Test XV)
Jamie Roberts (Test XV)
In Roberts and O’Driscoll we re-unite the centre combination from the last Lions tour where the Springboks were pushed so close. If O’Driscoll can make it to the first Test unscathed then he should start. Roberts has grown in confidence over the Six Nations and looks to have hit top form. He is a defensive leader and this is often overlooked by those who think a modern centre’s job is merely to run the right attacking lines. Gatland’s game is all about defence, and Roberts fits the bill perfectly. Jonathan Davies has the ability to break the line and would prove a more than able substitute should O’Driscoll fail to make it. Tuilagi appears to have the ability to play Gatland’s way, although his handling skills seem to let him down more often than they should.
Another surprise selection here in the form of multiple Lion and World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson. OK, so maybe not such a surprise. A couple of months ago Sexton was in the box seat for the Test starting position, but injury has robbed him of his chance to secure his place. Dan Biggar’s performances have improved over the tournament, culminating in his masterful display against England. It was Biggar’s dominance of his rival Owen Farrell which has cost the young Englishman his place on the tour. Wilkinson has been outstanding for Toulon again this season and has exactly the kind of composure needed to manage a game against the Australians.
Mike Phillips (Test XV)
Phillips is peerless in his position at the moment. He is the best scrum-half in the world and there is no need to say any more.
Adam Jones (Test XV)
Gethin Jenkins (Test XV)
Adam Jones has been the best tight head prop in world rugby for several years now, but it seems some pundits have only just worked this out. England threw two props at him on Saturday and he ate them both and spat them out. Wales had the luxury of choosing between the raw scrummaging power of Paul James and the super-human Gethin Jenkins. With Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins means that you have five back row players instead of three. His work rate and experience is unrivalled. Dan Cole will be glad to be on the same side as him for a change.
Richard Hibbard (Test XV)
This is a position where a number of contenders have ruled themselves out due to their propensity for giving away penalties. Hibbard has transformed himself in the past few years and we hope that Gatland has been as impressed with his progress as everyone else has. Rory Best is still a favourite of many pundits but he lacks the bulk and scrummaging prowess to force his way into the Test XV.
Alun-Wyn Jones (Test XV, Captain)
Richie Gray (Test XV)
Jones has stormed back from injury and is in the form of his career. He’s my choice as captain because he has the experience needed to secure his position in the side, he’s a winner, and he’s a leader. Evans, Gray and Launchbury have all worked their socks off in the championship and I expect they will run each other very close for the other second row Test spot.
Robshaw is considered in his natural position and is a strong candidate for the captaincy of the midweek side. Ryan Jones’ ability to play at lock, blindside and number eight means he often gets put on the bench or has to cover for an injured colleague. He remains one of the best back row forwards in world rugby and it seems a shame to leave him out of the Test XV. He has forced his way into contention on a Lions tour before, however. Lydiate has missed most of the season with a broken ankle, but he may yet force his way back into contention for a starting place in the first Test.
Sam Warburton (Test XV)
Justin Tipuric (Test XV)
Tipuric and Warburton starting a game together in the back row was a mouth-watering prospect, and what a sumptuous feast it proved. A perfect combination to give the aggressive Australian back row a run for their money. Warburton’s guts with Tipuric’s guile. I can’t wait.
Toby Faletau (Test XV)
Heaslip is another player who was talked up as a potential Lions captain before the Six Nations. Now he is lucky to be on the plane. Ireland have suffered a string of injuries and this has not helped his chances. Faletau’s fortunes have moved in the opposite direction: upwards. A big ball carrier and heroic in defence.
The Test XV
A Jones (Wales)
A-W Jones © (Wales)