Jack Lewars and Chris Gollop
The next in our ‘what next’ series takes a look at the British and Irish Lions. It’s worth pointing out right at the start, of course, that the chances of this being the actual Lions’ team are incredibly slim – even forgetting form and fitness, two years is a long time in international rugby. To give an illustrative example, a proposed Lions team at the end of the 2007 World Cup would never have included Jamie Roberts, a recent Osprey’s debutant, and he was Man of the Series in 2009. It would also have been a brave man who put money on Simon Shaw making the tour, let alone giving one of the greatest ever performances at lock in the second test.
With those caveats in mind, however, we thought it’d be interesting (not to mention fun) to have a stab at a Lions squad, based on World Cup form and pedigree. We have also included some speculative possibilities, so that we’ll look brilliant if we’re right.
A slightly tricky one, here. Sir Ian McGeechan can basically have the job whenever he wants but he has categorically ruled out a return to the Lions fold. Assuming this wasn’t another Steve Redgrave moment, the leading candidate at the moment would be Warren Gatland, given Wales’ glittering World Cup. With uncertainty over Johnson’s position at England, there is always the chance that someone could take over there and impress in the next two seasons, and the currently-unemployed trio of Jake White, Nick Mallett and (most especially) Graham Henry would all be in the frame. Henry is the coach with the greatest current standing, but he also managed to lose a Lions test series in 2001 that really, really should have been won.
Front Row – Cian Healey, Matthew Rees, Adam Jones
Probably a slightly easier area to predict than most, given that ‘Prop rockets to stardom’ is a fairly rare headline. Adam Jones remains the best tighthead prop in the world, and has Lions pedigree, so you’d back him to be starting. On the other side, the two leading lights at present are Gethin Jenkins and the much-improved Cian Healey. Although Jenkins has Lions experience, we fancy Healey as the younger man. The hooker position is uncertain, with no one making an irrefutable claim, but Matthew Rees is a fine player and will want his Wales captaincy back as he returns from injury. In terms of up-and-coming candidates, any of Dan Cole, Matt Stevens and the versatile Alex Corbisiero could stake a claim, and Ross Ford might be the dark horse at hooker.
Locks – Luke Charteris, Richie Gray
Luke Charteris’ performances at the recent World Cup set just about everyone purring with admiration, so he’s straight on the current team sheet. Richie Gray has consistently been one of Scotland’s best performers and his mobility in the loose would be well-suited to Australia’s faster pitches. If Courtney Lawes can rediscover the form of last Autumn, he will be one of the best second-rows in the world, but he hasn’t looked settled since the Six Nations, and his thumping defence is starting to look a little more like Henry Tuilagi’s than Jonny Wilkinson’s (he was yellow-carded on his return to Northampton last week). With Ireland and England both looking to refresh their aged packs, however, new players could well emerge here in the next season.
Back row – Sean O’Brien, Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau
There is an absolute abundance of riches here, and balance will be the key in 2009. We considered and rejected Tom Croft, who was awesome for the 2009 Lions, James Haskell, who has serious potential at 6 or 8, and Stephen Ferris, who is easily the best blindside flanker in the home nations. The controversy will of course be in selecting Sean O’Brien out of position – a different coach might want specialists in every position, in which case there is the mother of shoot-outs between Warburton and O’Brien at 7. Either way, it is a fearsomely physical back row, one which can carry, tackle all day and smash the breakdown to pieces. Faletau is one of the finds of the year, and it is difficult to envisage anyone surging ahead of him.
Half-backs – Mike Phillips, Rhys Priestland
Phillips on form is the best number 9 in the world – better than Du Preez and better than Genia. He is physical in attack and defence, a good distributor and a great runner, as he showed with some crucial solo tries in the World Cup. He will need to stay on form to fend off Ben Youngs and Rory Lawson, but he would be favourite at the moment. He will also consider Danny Care a threat, who was in superb form before injury curtailed his summer. Our pick for the unexpected contender would be Joe Simpson, however – he is absolutely blisteringly quick, far more so than Youngs or Care, both of whom can turn on the afterburners. If England use him correctly, he could be what Genia is to Australia, but the word is that it’d need a change in management for his intuitive style to be valued.
At fly-half, Sexton and Hook are both possibilities, but the former has question-marks over his kicking and the latter will be lucky to get a decent run in the position. Rhys Priestland has been integral to Wales’ resurgence, and has a lovely mix of tactical kicking and flat, threatening distribution. He also plays with Phillips and Roberts (see below) for Wales, which advances his claim.
Centres – Jamie Roberts, Manu Tuilagi
Roberts showed in 2009 what he can do to defences, and he rediscovered his best form just in time for the World Cup. He is a brutal runner who creates space for those around him and is the closest thing to a Ma’a Nonu in the Northern Hemisphere (although he can’t pass or kick, yet – it probably doesn’t come up too often when you’re over 17 stone). Outside him, Tuilagi’s pace and power would be utterly destructive. He was one of England’s only success stories, and a broken cheek bone won’t keep him from adding tries and caps to his tally. It is difficult to see anyone else ousting these two if their form continues as it is currently. There is always the possibility that Tuilagi will have beheaded some unsuspecting opponent, however, in which case Jonathan Davies might sneak into the test team.
Back three – George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Ben Foden
This is the most volatile of the selections, as your wingers in particular are selected mainly on form. North has had just about every superlative in the book thrown at him in the last two months, although we feel he has yet to prove his pedigree against the top teams. He would still be starting, however, if the first test was tomorrow. The other wing could be any number of people – Keith Earls, Ugo Monye and Tommy Bowe were on the 2009 tour; Christian Wade and Charlie Sharples continue to light up the Premiership; and Max Evans has a serious turn of pace for Scotland. Sticking strictly to current form, Leigh Halfpenny had an excellent World Cup and was just one foot short of kicking Wales into the final, with his 2009 experience and versatility in his favour. If we’re honest, though, Chris Ashton’s dip in form is largely because England have forgotten how to break the gain line – there’s no one like him for finishing a half-break, and he could run riot with Tuilagi and Roberts creating gaps inside him. Despite his and England’s poor showing at the World Cup, Ashton still finished as the joint highest try-scorer in the tournament, which is truly astonishing.
At full-back, James Hook is again unlucky to be excluded, but Ben Foden has quietly been one of the most consistent full-backs in the world for two years – rock solid defence, a good decision-maker, very quick and capable of simply smashing players into oblivion when he runs into them. His try against France was a reminder of his class, and he would complete an exciting and threatening back three.
So there you go – a bloody good fifteen. Particularly exciting is the quality in key positions, such as the back row,the scrum-half and the centres, although Priestland is not yet a world-class number 10. Feel free to add your thoughts, challenges and corrections, or simply post your alternative XV.