3/21/2013

Wales look likely to dominate Lions' squad

 

Saturday's result in Cardiff looks certain to result in a squad of distinctly red hue.

The Lions’ squad of 36/37 will be announced on April 30th and up until the weekend rarely has the composition of the squad or the first Test-starting XV, along with that of the captaincy, been so open to conjecture. But all that changed utterly with last Saturday’s glorified final trial.

The compelling collective performance of the Welsh was also a reminder that they have most of the leading candidates for a Test place, as befits a team that are further down the road in their development than a more limited and prosaic England. The Welsh were, after all, the team which performed by far the best of the home unions in the last World Cup and have now won back-to-back championships.

They have experience of a three-Test tour of Australia, and with Warren Gatland’s likely preference for youthful physicality and pace, and a sprinkling of quality from the home countries, can therefore provide the nucleus of a squad good enough to engineer a first Lions’ Test series win since 1999.

Nonetheless, while the events of Cardiff have assuredly clarified the make-up of the squad and influenced the likely composition of the Test team – both of which assuredly have more of a red than white hue as a result – there most likely remain significant areas of doubt and debate for the Lions’ coaching ticket.

With its lack of expansiveness and so few tries, this has not been a vintage Six Nations for outside backs, and bar the Welsh wings and fullback Leigh Halfpenny, no-one can feel safe.

As for the captaincy? Sam Warburton’s reluctance to assume the job for the showdown in Cardiff having just regained form and fitness echoed his reluctance to lead Wales at 21 years of age at the last World Cup. But, an articulate, highly presentable face to the media and public, that campaign also demonstrated his ability to lead a squad on a long campaign in the Southern Hemisphere in tandem with Gatland and Rob Howley, while his performance last Saturday was a reminder of his natural-born leadership with or without an armband as well as highlighting the likelihood of him being in the Test XV.

FORWARDS
Props (6)
Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
Adam Jones (Wales)
Cian Healy (Ireland)
Dan Cole (England)
Andrew Sheridan (England)
Geoff Cross (Scotland)

Jenkins and Jones, look like shoo-ins, and Healy will assuredly travel. Despite his difficulties in Cardiff, Cole ought to make the party too, but even if there’s a third tighthead Mike Ross will be under pressure from Cross, while Andrew Sheridan, given his track record against Australian scrums since he almost single-handedly beat them in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final in Marseilles, could be a dark horse. If the decision is to bring only five props, then the versatility of Paul James will become even more valuable.

Hookers (3)
Richard Hibbard (Wales)
Tom Youngs (England)
Dylan Hartley (England)

With the accuracy of his darts and his defensive work rate, Hibbard almost looks favourite to start in the first Test. Youngs and Hartley are both contenders, as is Ken Owens for that matter, as well as Rory Best and Ross Ford, and though Best’s throwing won’t have helped his chances, he has had the better of Hartley in head-to-heads.

Locks (4/5)
Ian Evans (Wales)
Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Geoff Parling (England)
Donnacha Ryan (Ireland)
Courtney Lawes (England)

Evans, on the winning side in 14 of his last 15 Six Nations game, and Jones, whose return was so instrumental in Wales’ revival, are yet more Welsh shoo-ins. Then it gets competitive. Parling has been an English stand-out, even last Saturday, Jim Hamilton had a fine tournament, and Donnacha Ryan is well-regarded by Gatland, but Joe Launchbury's star dimmed a tad, Richie Gray has been sidelined, and unlike, say, Luke Charteris, Paul O’Connell may have a Heineken Cup quarter-final to showcase his pedigree. But with the need for a lock cum backrower, Lawes has a good shout.

Backrow (6)
Sam Warburton (Wales)
Justin Tipuric (Wales)
Toby Felatau (Wales)
Seán O’Brien (Ireland)
Tom Wood (England)
Tom Croft (England)

Typically, the most competitive area of all. The Welsh trio have surely sealed their places but Dan Lydiate doesn’t have any European games to showcase his abilities. O’Brien’s versatility and all-round dynamism has to be included, while Wood and Croft offer another number eight option and lineout skills/versatility. Jamie Heaslip cannot be discounted given his pedigree if allowing for a trying championship, Peter O’Mahony has a chance, while both Kelly Brown and John Beattie had good tournaments.

BACKS
Scrumhalves (3)
Mike Phillips (Wales)
Ben Youngs (England)
Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)

Phillips is again another Welsh shoo-in given last Saturday’s virtuoso performance, when Youngs’ sniping was still one of the few English weapons. Danny Care has not enhanced his credentials, nor frustratingly has Conor Murray save for a fine game against France. Laidlaw offers additional goalkicking and outhalf cover.

Outhalves (2)
Jonny Sexton (Ireland)
Owen Farrell (England)

Sometimes it helps to be injured and Sexton’s importance to Ireland has certainly been enhanced by his absence. It might even have kept him fresher. Farrell, at times petulant in his competitiveness, still had a good tournament overall and even in Cardiff looked comfortable on the ball, although Dan Biggar must be pushing him closer now.

Centres (5)
Jamie Roberts (Wales)
Jonathan Davies (Wales
Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
Manu Tuilagi (England)
James Hook (Wales)

Pedigree counts here again, recalling the Roberts-O’Driscoll axis of four years ago while a la Roberts (whose leadership of the Welsh defence helped to keep the opposition tryless after O’Driscoll's 45th minute try in the opening game) Davies has had a timely return to form. Tuilagi’s ballast is hard to ignore, while the candidatures of Hook, a tourist four years ago, and Billy Twelvetrees, are above Brad Barritt in that they can provide cover at outhalf.