The countdown to next year's British and Irish Lions tour has well and truly begun and with the November Tests kicking off this weekend, players from the four home unions have an early opportunity to stake a claim for a Test spot.
The Wallabies will face off with Lions aspirants from England and Wales on the Spring Tour while Scotland and Ireland’s finest will be in action against the likes of the All Blacks, Springboks and Pumas among others.
Lions coach Warren Gatland won’t finalise his squad until after next year’s Six Nations tournament but a quality performance against the world’s top three Test nations would go a long way to securing a plane ticket for the trip Down Under.
The Lions squad is unlikely to closely resemble the one which lost 2-1 in South Africa four years ago, although players like Paul O’Connell, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips are almost certain to line up in the famous red strip.
But who else has been staking a claim up north?
Mako Vunipola (England)
Haven’t heard of Vunipola? Well, as the debate continues to rage about player poaching in the southern hemisphere it’s comforting to know they're having the same discussion across Europe. England coach Stuart Lancaster included Vunipola - the son of Tongan great Fe’au Vunipola - in his squad after the Saracens prop made a fine start to the Aviva Premiership. For the record, Vunipola played for both England Under 18s and 20s.
Manu Tuilagi (England)
Vanipola may not yet be a household name but there’s no doubting Tuilangi’s ascension to stardom, if for nothing more than his antics at Rugby World Cup 2011. The Samoan-born centre put the finishing touches on England’s disastrous campaign in New Zealand when he threw himself off a ferry in Auckland harbour. The 21-year-old has since matured and will get his chance to push for a Lions call-up when the Wallabies arrive at Twickenham on November 17.
Stephen Ferris (Ireland)
A Lions tourist in 2009, Ferris has been a mainstay of Ireland’s backrow for the past six years. The Ulster No.8 was a standout at RWC 2011 but missed a return trip to New Zealand in June because of a calf injury. Playing alongside the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien in a powerful Irish backrow, Ferris will be keen to strike an early Lions claim with a strong outing against the Springboks on November 10.
Simon Zebo (Ireland)
He may not be as highly rated as compatriot Tommy Bowe, but at just 22 years of age Zebo is developing as a winger. The Munster speedster played his one and only Test for Ireland in the 42-10 loss to New Zealand in June but will surely add to that across November. With the likes of Wales flyers Alex Cuthbert and George North, and England’s Chris Ashton, all but assured of a trip to Australia, Zebo needs a couple of five-pointers to put himself firmly in Lions reckoning.
Tim Visser (Scotland)
Another player who is pushing for a spot out wide, Visser began his Test career earlier this year in Scotland’s back-to-back victories over Fiji and Samoa. Originally from The Netherlands, Visser was one of the driving forces behind Edinburgh’s charge to the 2012 Heineken Cup semis and was the RaboDirect PRO12 League’s (Celtic League) top try-scorer from 2010 to 2012. A match-up against All Blacks Cory Jane and Hosea Gear will provide a better indication of his talents.
Richie Gray (Scotland)
Scotland’s most consistent performer over the last two years, Gray is right in the mix for a Lions ticket. A standout thanks to both his flowing blond locks and uncompromising play, Gray represented Scotland at Under 18s, 19s and 20s level before making his Test debut in the 2010 Six Nations. Ireland’s Paul O’Connell and Wales veteran Alun-Wyn Jones are looking like the first-choice Lions lock pairing but providing he continues his strong Sale Sharks form at Test level, Gray should be right there with them.
Sam Warburton (Wales)
Many northern hemisphere players have arrived Down Under with big reputations only to leave with their tails between their legs, but this is definitely not the case for Sam Warburton. The Wales captain excelled at last year’s World Cup and backed that up with strong performances in the three-Test series against the Wallabies this year. It’s easy to forget he’s just 24, such are his leadership qualities and on-field presence. More of a powerful No.7 than an out-and-out scavenger, Warburton is one of the most complete forwards in world rugby and is a good chance of captaining the Lions.
Rhys Priestland (Wales)
Another with a maturity that belies his age is Rhys Priestland, Wales' ever-improving fly half. Skipping ahead of Stephen Jones and James Hook is no mean feat, but Priestland has shown he deserves the No.10 spot and looks a frontrunner for the position on next year's Lions tour. Wales have been highly praised for their willingness to play expansive rugby, and Priestland has been a key figure in maintaining that style.