Paws for thought
The British and Irish Lions tours are always a magnificent spectacle and four years ago we were treated to three epic encounters between World Cup winners South Africa and a Lions team including a host of Irish grand slam champions. This time round Australia are the opponents, and coach Warren Gatland must assemble a team that possesses both the talent and mentality to win in the most hostile of environments. But with such a range of quality British and Irish players who should he go with?
One area which shouldn’t pose too much of a problem is up front. This is Australia’s potential weak spot and I think taking the giant prop Andrew Sheridan is a must is the Lions are to expose this frailty. The Welsh pair Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones have proved their might in both the most recent Six Nations and in the 2009 Lions tour and their experience will be invaluable to the visitors, as will the pace and ball carrying of Cian Healy.
Second row is another area where Gatland will be spoilt for choice but for me Richie Gray and Alun Wyn Jones should get the nod. The former stands at 6ft 9 and is deadly quick across the ground; something to give the Wallabies something to think about no doubt, the latter is consistent performer whose Lions experience should balance Gray’s youthful exuberance.
The back row could be where the tour is won or lost, the Aussie contingent are mobile and tough and the Lions must replicate that. The only players I believe could live with the intensity are the Welsh boys Tipuric, Faletau and Warburton who demonstrated in that crushing victory over England that they are the complete package. Although I wouldn’t have Warburton as captain as many have suggested, he plays so much better without that burden.
At scrum-half Mike Phillips edges it over Greg Laidlaw for me, in 2009 he was arguably the player of the tour and no Australian scrum-half can match his brute physicality. There may be a little more apprehension when it comes to fly-half with no standout candidate for the role. Ireland’s Jonny Sexton brings a little more creativity than the solid Owen Farrell so should get the nod but Farrell’s defensive qualities are second to none and could bag him the no.10 jersey.
In the backs Australia will be sharp and imaginative with players like Quade-Cooper and Giteau and the Lions must get the right balance of defence and attack. And in Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll I believe that balance will be struck. Last time round in South Africa their partnership was electrifying and their intelligence and experience puts them ahead of the powerful but unsophisticated Manu Tuilagi. O’Driscoll should also be given the captaincy, he embodies the Lions mentality (this will be his fourth Lions tour if picked) and thrives under the responsibility of captaincy. There are very few genuinely devastating wingers available and as such I think Gatland should take a risk on the young but skilful Simon Zebo. The powerful Alex Cuthbert on the other wing would perfectly complement the more diminutive figure of Zebo. One positive to come out of a poor Six Nations tournament was the emergence of an abundance of world-class fullbacks and the coaching staff have a tough decision to make. Personally I like the cut of Stuart Hogg’s jib but Halfpenny or Kearney both possess the quality to make the position their own.