11/6/2012

Warren Gatland faces embarrassment of riches over Lions tour

 

Upcoming Tests are an opportunity for fringe players to step forward, but the issue this time is quantity, not quality.

November has dawned, always a month of reckoning for the four home unions. If they cannot achieve much on their own soft grounds against opponents limping to the end of their seasons, it can be a depressing period.

Alternatively, it can be a time of glistening opportunity, particularly in a Lions season. Warren Gatland may not have finalised all his coaches but the sifting process of squad selection will shortly begin.

This time around, Gatland has the advantage of recent history. There are numerous candidates from the fondly remembered 2009 tour of South Africa, handy when it comes to bonding a tight, happy group in Hong Kong and Australia next summer. It requires little imagination to see Wales and Ireland once again providing a bristling Celtic core to the Test XV as the squad seek a first series win since 1997.

But what are the autumn Tests if not an invitation for fringe Lions candidates to take a match to the towering pile of such apparent certainties?

Gatland has made clear this week he has not ruled out the English exiles in Toulon, news that will encourage Jonny Wilkinson, the Armitage brothers and Andrew Sheridan. It was also a welcome indication he is thinking laterally. By the new year, you can bet the New Zealander's notebook will have several more intriguing names in it.

The criteria he will be following is no secret. Ian McGeechan, the ultimate Lions ringmaster, always looked for "characters and footballers" with a little no-nonsense midweek leadership thrown in to keep the entire squad together. In 2009, that was the reason why Ireland's Alan Quinlan, prior to his subsequent suspension, was initially chosen ahead of Tom Croft. The Englishman has since become a genuine world-class player, but the short, sharp intense nature of a Lions tour sometimes demands slightly different qualities.

With that in mind, who might feature on Gatland's extended radar? If we start in the front row, the difficulty of the task becomes immediately obvious. Ireland's Cian Healy and Wales's Gethin Jenkins might be considered the current favourites for the No1 shirt but England suddenly have loosehead contenders aplenty. If Sheridan does not make it, one of Joe Marler, Alex Corbisiero or Mako Vunipola surely will.

Theoretically, there could even be an Irish Lion who, as we speak, has yet to play a single, solitary game for his province, let alone the national side. Michael Bent is about as quintessentially Irish as a kiwi fruit, but the 26-year-old prop has just pitched up in Dublin and could feature in all three November Tests by virtue of his grandmother, even though he has not yet represented Leinster.

It would be a stranger-than-fiction story if he returned to the southern hemisphere with the Lions alongside Richardt Strauss, Ireland's new South African, who is also now eligible to enter the hooking equation. By the end of the month, Leicester's Tom Youngs and London Irish's David Paice will have joined the lengthening queue, too. At this rate Gatland may need to buy two notebooks.

You can certainly see him jotting down the names of Justin Tipuric and Liam Williams, two talented Welshmen on a sharp upward trajectory.

Munster's Peter O'Mahony looks some prospect to me, as do Ulster's Paul Marshall and Iain Henderson. The back row options are ridiculously strong but Scotland have just announced Kelly Brown as their captain and there are few more rousing post-match singers in the land. He could yet be the dirt-tracking leader McGeechan traditionally searched for.

And so it goes on. The Dutch-born Tim Visser, yet to make his home debut for Scotland, is the most prolific try-scorer in the RaboDirect Pro12 and is desperate to become the first Lion from the Netherlands.

Danny Care, Ben Youngs and Lee Dickson may be the three England squad No 9s but Exeter's Haydn Thomas and Wasps' Joe Simpson are worth a look if Mike Phillips ends up lost in France. The autumn Tests will dominate most people's attention, but there are plenty more Premiership-based names to conjure with. Kyle Eastmond, James Simpson-Daniel, Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees, Steve Borthwick or Danny Cipriani anyone?

By the time you add in good players hoping to boost reputations in the weeks ahead – Jonathan Davies, Ian Evans, Geoff Parling, Ross Rennie, Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Joseph, Alex Goode – along with the injured Brian O'Driscoll, Rory Best, Sean O'Brien, Croft and Adam Jones, it is apparent Gatland's problem is not quality but quantity. All he has to do now is squeeze a quart into a pint pot.