Sunday, 28 April 2013

Pride of Britain: My Lions Selection

On Tuesday Warren Gatland will announce his squad for the Welsh Lions tour to Australia this summer.  

Early rumours from the usual well placed journalists seem to be suggesting that as few as 7 Englishmen will tour and the vast majority of the squad will be from the Wales side that this season lost 7 games on the spin; including four losses to Australia plus a humiliating defeat at home to Samoa.  England of course did manage to flukily squeak past the All Blacks by just the 17 points, whilst England, Ireland and Scotland have all won down under in their most recent visits.  But we all know Wales is the supreme force in British rugby as their mighty tally of victories against the Springboks, All Blacks and Wallabies attests.

But I know what you are desperate to say "Mr. Ultra SubMarines, begging your pardon, but who would you select if you were the mighty over-lord of selection?"  

Well your prayers are answered I am here to tell you what to think and to provide a stinging rebuke to Celtic based pundits like soft Eddie Butler, whose Lions team had 1 non-Celt in it: the kilted Kiwi Sean Maitland!

So enough waffle lets get down and dirty: who should tour?

At prop there are some obvious ones, Dan Cole and Adam Jones must tour because they are head and shoulders above all the others at tighthead.  You would think that Cian "Stampy" Healy has done enough to take one of the loosehead spots, unless he has another attack at a defenseless player's leg of course.  If his fitness holds Alex Corbiseiro has been a rock for England and his absence was telling in the 6 Nations.  Then we hit some harder calls.  Is Toulon's Gethin Jenkins first of all actually good enough for a call up and secondly, as he will miss the first game and have to fly out on his own, worth making an exception for?  I think he is probably good enough to go all things being equal, but they aren't equal.  Toulon will surely make the French Championship final and he will literally miss the boat, or rather the plane, okay it wasn't literally literal only figuratively literal.  Still.  

So presuming 4 props isn't enough (it isn't) who else will tour?  For me the options at tighthead are Euan Murray, Mike Ross, Craig Mitchell or Davy Boy Wilson.  There are no Sunday games (I think) so Euan Murray's bizarre religiosity shouldn't count against him; so he doesn't tour for me because he's not good enough instead.  Craig Mitchell has struggled to impose himself at Exeter so again he misses out.  Mike Ross has been good for Leinster and okay for Ireland but for me the Geordie prop Davy Boy Wilson gets the nod.  He has struggled to get past Dan Cole for England but then Leibniz struggles to gain recognition ahead of Newton, it doesn't make you a bad prop or physicist to be second best to one of the greatest talents to grace this earth.  

We've dealt with the right hand props so what about the lefty looseheads? Ryan Grant of Scotland has his admirers but we already have two normal looseheads, if one goes down injured we can call on a talent like Grant or maybe Jenkins.  This is a squad and needs its balance of carriers too.  Mako Vunipola probably isn't the best prop available but he has a destructive carrying game and should be a massive impact sub for the mid-week side.  And if his form holds maybe more.

Similarly at hooker our own Tom Youngs has an impact around the field that can't be matched world wide so must tour.  I would bring only 3 hookers so who is to fill the other berths? The options for me are Dylan Hartly, Richard "My Eyes" Hibbard and Rory Best.  Given the attrition rate of hookers all three will probably be required at some stage and perhaps Ken Owens too.  But for the initial party I would take "My Eyes" Hibbard and Dylan Hartly.  Both are large units and mobile with it as well as being leaders on the field.  None of the hookers have 100% lineout accuracy which is a weakness so we just have to embrace what they will give us round the field rather than worry about what they might not give us at the line out.  

Locking out the scrum there are few stand out contenders.  Paul O'Connell has been on top form for Munster in the Heineken Cup but hasn't played test match rugby at that standard for a long time.  He's in my squad but only grudgingly as there are not many options that can match him if he can bring the A game.  Alun Wyn Jones is a favourite of mine so he's in the party.  He's strong in the air and the ruck, as captain of the Ospreys he is a leader which will be needed too.  So who else is to tour?  Our own Geoff Parling? Cov's favourite Scotsman Jim Hamilton?  One name I think will go but won't name in my party is Wyn Jones's Ospreys team mate Ian Evans.  The thug who ruined Harry Ellis's knee is not welcome in my party.

I would take Leicester's Geoff Parling and Wasps' Joe Launchbury but would be reasonably happy with Munster's Donncha Ryan or Gloucester's Jim Hamilton.  Cardiff's Brad Davies is a good player also but has struggled with injuries so misses out for me.  The only player that the press is bigging up that I can't fathom is Sale's Ritchie Gray.  His form has been atrocious at both club and country level, for Sale he has been played out of the team by the Russian Ostrikov and local boy Tom Holmes.  Courtney Lawes seems to have fallen from grace but I still like him and he'd be on my standby list.

The back row is probably the most competitive area of the team you can just keep on throwing in names that have looked excellent all season.  The standout "pure" 7 has been the Ospreys' Justin Tipuric so he must tour.  Sam Warburton might not have been as good as he was last season but is still a quality operator and like Richard Hill or Lewis Moody he has the bulk to slip to 6 if required.  Tom Wood returned to international action this season and was Man of the Match in that lucky win against New Zealand.  The Welsh would go ballistic if a player who had put in a performance like that was ignored for the Lions.  

Tigers own Tom Croft has to tour for me simply because of his difference to the other options.  Guys like Warburton, Brown, O'Brien, Lydiate, Robshaw are all great flankers but are ten a penny, the gazelle like Croft is one of a kind.  Of those "ten a penny" options I would take Kelly Brown.  You have to have some Scots on the tour and he is as good as any of the others.

Lydiate is perhaps the best player but he hasn't played internationally for a long time now.  Injuries will happen though so I would tell him to dominate for Wales in Japan and he'll be the first man called up.  As Croft showed last time you can miss the initial party and still play in all of the tests.

For number 8 there are again a litany of options.  You have pacier 8s like Heaslip or Beattie, you have big carrying 8s like Ben Morgan or players with a bit of bath like Toby Faletau.  You also have "jack of all trade" back rows like Sean O'Brien or Jimmy Haskell.  For me the jack of all trades is, as they say, master of none so Haskell and O'Brien miss out as their flexibility just isn't needed when I'm bringing 7 back rows.  At 8 even though I would like a barrel chested barnstormer like Morgan you have to go with class and Heaslip and Faletau have that.

Now, for those that have struggled through this so far, we get to the backs.

The back three is an interesting area for the selectors.  England's three full backs are all good options with Brown in particular good form domestically but being roasted by Alex Cuthbert in Cardiff,even though he was playing on the wing, has scorched his chances I fear.  Alex Goode has his admirers though I am not one and Ben Foden hasn't been playing for England and has struggled with niggling injuries.  

Clermont has Lee Byrne but his likely involvement with the French play offs precludes his selection, whilst Rob Kearney will probably be in Gatland's merry bunch he won't be in mine.  In terms of wingers there are fewer options especially when I take my principled stand against Tim Visser and Sean Maitland playing for the Lions despite being Dutch and Kiwi as they are.  Ulster has Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy, both fine players but not quite having enough form or class to break into my selection.

By process of elimination you have probably worked out the 6 I would take the cover the back three.  At full back Leigh Halfpenny has been imperious (and linked to Leicester, we can but hope) and is favourite for the test jersey whilst Stuart Hogg is the coming man.  Lions tours are for the coming players and Hogg is on the crest of a wave for both Glasgow and the Scots.

My wingers would be Welsh wizards George North and Alex Cuthbert who provide pace and power, Taff Tuilagis if you will.  Simon Zebo has a touch of class and that Munster spirit, I have a feeling he is one who could really flourish on tour then maybe fade away in the next couple of season; but Lions tours are of the now and now is his time.  

Perhaps contradicting that slightly is my next pick of Chris Ashton.  Okay he has perhaps not been the best in the 6 Nations but he has the finishers nose and the kind of character that would suit the Lions.  He doesn't seem a sulker so could be a good tourist.  Zebo and Ashton both can cover full back in an emergency too.

In the centres there seems to be 5 standout options and not really much to debate.  Brian O'Driscoll might be in the winter of his career but still looks to have that touch of class.  He might have to cede a test place to the bullocking Manu Tuialgi but as an experienced head and talent wise he is still full value for his place.  To go with Manu and BOD is the Welsh pairing of Jonathan Davies (no not that one) and Dr. Jamie Roberts.  Nicely balanced and both capable of playing anywhere in the backline they will surely tour.  My 5th centre would be England's Zimbabwean heartbeat Brad Barritt.  Now I know above I have said on principle the British Lions is for British players but Barritt has been here a long time and rules are made to be broken!  If I were to bow to principle then I reckon Matt Scott from Edinburgh would fill the berth as I do quite like him.

Finally we approach the end of this marathon article as we reach the final mile and the half backs.

I've read some funny things about half backs recently.  Soft Eddie Butler would have Lloyd Williams in the party, I must admit I didn't have a clue who that was and had to look him up!  Hardly a sign of a good player is it?  The realistic options at 9 seem to me to be Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Connor Murray or Mike Phillips.  Phillips availability won't be a problem as Bayonne are 15 points of the play offs with 1 game to go.  I imagine Gatland will leave Care at home but I would have Drunken Danny and have Connor Murray miss out.  Murray almost changed my mind yesterday but Youngs and Care are a pair of live wires who feed off each other whilst Mike Phillips provides his bull strength.  

I would also take Greg Laidlaw the Scotch switch back; primarily as a fly half but providing cover at 9 as well.  Fly half is another position you hear some funny things about.  There is talk of not taking Owen Farrell but picking both Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland.  Jonathan Sexton is a tad over rated but he is still a quality conductor at 10 and will surely tour.  I still think there is an outside chance of Toby Flood touring but maybe not.  He fits more naturally into the same type of game as Sexton and Priestland than Farrell.  Again a strong finish to the season and a cracking first test against the Argentinians might propel him into contention should there be an injury on tour.

So that is my tour party and that is my reasons.  Hang me high or shoot me down.  The thing that hopefully Gatland will remember is that a happy camp is paramount and nothing worse for camp atmosphere than the suspicion of favoritism.     

Full Backs: Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg
Wings: George North, Simon Zebo, Alex Cuthbert, Chris Ashton
Centres: Manu Tuilagi, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Brad Barritt, Jon Davies
Fly Halfs: Jonathan Sexton, Owen Farrell, Greg Laidlaw
Scrum Halfs: Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Mike Phillips
Props: Dan Cole, Adam Jones, Cian “Stampy” Healy, Alex Corbiseiro, Mako Vunipola, Davy Wilson
Hookers: Tom Youngs, Dylan Hartley, Richard “My Eyes” Hibbard
Locks: Paul O’Connell, Alun Wyn Jones, Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury
Back row: Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton, Tom Wood, Tom Croft, Kelly Brown, Toby Faletau, Jamie Heaslip

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