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By Iain Spragg (Contributor, MSN Sport)
There are more questions than answers for Lions coach Warren Gatland after a pulsating but unilluminating Six Nations
Let’s start with the good news. With a fair wind, a modest degree of luck with injuries and pragmatic selection, the Lions should be strong enough to topple the Wallabies Down Under this summer. Warren Gatland has enough weapons in his armoury to get the job done and the tourists’ 16-year wait for a series victory should finally be over when the final whistle sounds in Sydney in early July.
The form of his own Wales side, despite his sabbatical, will no doubt have bouyed the head coach. The embryonic Scottish renaissance was another plus as he ponders the balance of his final squad and although they were mercilessly dismantled in Cardiff, England still made genuine strides forward.
And yet in private Gatland will be reflecting on a tournament which told him little he didn’t already know. The Kiwi said before the final round of Six Nations fixtures that a third of the places on the plane remained up for grabs and it’s hard to imagine the games – and the Championship as a whole – significantly clarified his thought process.
Aside from their inexplicably dismal opening 50 minutes against Ireland, Wales were magnificent. The likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins and Justin Tipuric were all in vintage form and having already pencilled them in for the tour, Gatland has now written down their names in indelible ink. A positive yes but hardly a revelation.
England were ultimately exposed for exactly what they are – a young side with potential but still a work in progress. The euphoria of their opening win over Scotland faded and although Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi need not worry about their summer holidays, none of their team-mates made a compelling case for a place in the Test side.
There will be a healthy English contingent in the squad but the likes of Tom Wood, Joe Launchbury, Alex Goode and Chris Robshaw finished the Championship essentially no nearer or further from a possible Lions XV than when the tournament began.
It was heartening to witness Scotland’s revival but although Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Greig Laidlaw and Kelly Brown impressed, the only player to emerge from relative obscurity was Johnnie Beattie, whose second coming at international level was one of the highlights of the tournament.
Richie Gray will remain in contention despite his hamstring injury and although Scottish rugby should comfortably better the meagre two players named by Ian McGeechan in his initial squad for the 2009 tour of South Africa, Gatland will not be extensively rewriting his player list.
The uncharacteristically subdued displays by Ireland will have confounded the coach and if the Six Nations did teach Gatland anything, it was the worrying dip in form of some of the leading lights in the Irish side.
His petulant stamp on Italy’s Simone Favaro aside, Brian O’Driscoll continued to defy the years admirably but Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney and Conor Murray were all below their usual best. Donnacha Ryan and Luke Marshall did enhance their reputations but Ireland overall were disappointing.
Whether Gatland uses the inconclusiveness of the Championship as an opportunity to draft in a few wildcard selections remains to be seen. With 10 of his first-choice Test 15 probably resolved in his mind, the New Zealander is now looking for balance and willing midweekers.
Which is a huge incentive to the players who did not feature in the Six Nations and the likes of Eli Walker, Andrew Sheridan, Nathan Hines, Dan Lydiate and perhaps even Tommy Bowe would be wise to keep their options open this summer.