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Baxter: British & Irish Lions 2013 Tour Squad Announcement

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By Al Baxter

It has begun. The announcement of the 37 man British & Irish Lions touring squad kicks off what will be the biggest Rugby festival in Australia since the 2003 World Cup and following every game will be Stephen Hoiles and I giving our analysis and insights beginning with the Lion’s first Tour match against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1.
This Tour has been 12 years in the making, the last time they ventured to our shores in 2001 they left licking their wounds suffering a 2-1 series defeat.
The 2013 Tour will also mark 125 years of touring for the Lions since their formation in 1888 (to tour Australia and New Zealand) and the Lions of this Tour will be keenly aware that the last 3 trips to the antipodes have been unsuccessful. Head coach Warren Gatland has revealed his strategies to try and reverse this trend by selecting a squad which has been picked for physical size, intensity and 6 Nations form – these players are perhaps the biggest ever sent south making Gatland’s intentions fairly clear in wanting to try and out-muscle the Qantas Wallabies in the three Tests. However Gatland has acknowledged that this will be no easy task, recognising that the form of the top Australian provincial sides in this year’s Super Rugby tournament has been red hot.
So to begin our analysis of the 2013 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia I’ll look at what I think will be the 5 key match ups that may well decide the series:
1. Sam Warburton (Wales) v James Horwill.
This is certainly the most significant match-up in the two squads – that of the captains (and although Horwill has yet to have been named as captain, his blistering form and strong leadership for the Reds and the absence of David Pocock through injury makes his selection as captain all but guaranteed).
Sam Warburton is the current Welsh captain having led them to back-to-back 6 Nations titles and is the obvious choice to lead the Lions with 15 Welshman in the touring party. However, his form as captain on last year’s Welsh tour to Australia was not great with his subsequent playing performance also suffering and this may play on his mind when the immense pressure of the series is applied.
Horwill too has not served as Wallabies captain for 18 months so will also be feeling the pressure early in the series as he finds his feet again leading his country.
This contest may come down to whichever captain can stamp his authority early in the series and with the first Test at Horwill’s home ground, Suncorp Stadium, I feel he may take the honours here.
2. Matt Stevens (England) v Benn Robinson
Gatland has picked six props in his squad (compared to only two fly-halves) making it clear this will be an area of focus for the team and one to shoulder much of this burden will be the 30-year old veteran English prop Matt Stevens.
South African born Stevens has had a controversial career having served a two year drugs ban in 2006 immediately after being part of the Bath team that won the Heineken Cup. However his form against Australia has been strong and this experience will be much needed in a Lions pack full of Welshman that did not perform to expectation in their tour last year.
Stevens plays both sides of the scrum but is most comfortable at tight head where he should go head-to-head with an in-form Benn Robinson. After Robinson’s role in the demolition of a well fancied Bull’s provincial pack in Pretoria last weekend and his continual good form this season he should be wearing the Wallaby no.1 jersey against Stevens and this should prove an exciting battle as both are strong scrummagers and handy round the park with ball in hand. 
3. Jonathan Sexton (Ireland) v James O’Connor
Jonathan Sexton is a highly talented fly-half with an excellent running and kicking game but there have been some significant injury concerns for him this year especially a serious foot injury, which he sustained at training during the 6 Nations tournament.
This would have surely been playing on the mind of Gatland when making his selection of only two fly-halves for the squad. Sexton, when fit, will be a real danger to the Qantas Wallabies and his battle with O’Connor will be a fascinating one as both are good on their feet with strong X-factors.
However, if Sexton is unable to play, his back-up, 21 year old Englishman Owen Farrell, will be thrown in the deep end and has struggled in similar situations this year namely the final 6 Nations match against Wales and the Heineken Cup finals match last week against Toulon. 
This is not to say that there won’t also be huge pressure on O’Connor as he will have to prove to selectors that he can click quickly with Genia so the Qantas Wallabies 9/10 combination can fire, all of this on top of the inherent pressure of likely being the Wallabies goal kicker
4. Manu Tuilagi (England) v Adam Ashley Cooper
Samoan born Tuilagi has been crowned as England’s version of Jonah Lomu by the Northern Hemisphere press and although 5kgs lighter and 10cm’s shorter than the legendary All Black winger he is certainly still a monster centre at 110kg. He can also have a similar impact as Lomu, as shown in last November’s game against New Zealand in London.
Adam Ashley Cooper has been the Qantas Wallabies’ Mr Reliable over the last couple of seasons with some extraordinary defence and a never-say-die attitude which he will certainly need against Tuilagi (and the other four Lion’s outside backs over 105kg!).
In this regards, hopefully Deans will also see a place for Israel Folau in his starting backline to counter the potential monster Lion’s backline as Folau’s size, offloads in attack and work in defence this year for the Waratahs has been exceptional.
5. Leigh Halfpenny (Wales) v Jesse Mogg
Leigh Halfpenny could be one of the keys to this Lions squad outside of Warburton. Not only because he is the likely first choice for goal kicker but also because after being awarded the 6 Nations Player of the Tournament, he is the form player of the Lion’s touring party.
If Halfpenny is allowed the opportunity to attack in broken play the Qantas Wallabies may pay for it dearly.
This does set up though what should be an exhilarating match-up between Halfpenny and the likely Qantas Wallabies fullback, Jesse Mogg. 
Uncapped Brumbies fullback Mogg is one of the form players in the Southern Hemisphere and has been rightly compared with Wallaby legend Joe Roff for his highly deceptive loping running style and superb reading of the game.
Both players have the potential to swing the tournament either way.
*Disclaimer - Views expressed within this story are not necessarily the views of the ARU or