British & Irish Lions squad – Will they be good enough?

A lot of hype and anticipation surrounded the announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad to tour Hong Kong and Australia in the Aussie winter this June and July. Who would make it. Who wouldn’t. And who would captain the side.

Coach Warren Gatland named his 37 man squad on April 30 with a reasonably predictable squad, although I was surprised not to see the following two big names included; England captain Chris Robshaw and Irish hooker Rory Best.

Both men had great Six Nations campaigns in my opinion and were very unlucky not to be on the plane to Australia. Robshaw inspired England to some gutsy wins while earning Man of the Match honours in three of England’s five games in the tournament. Best on the other hand, without being outstanding was solid in his performances for Ireland.

Although born in Australia, when it comes to International Rugby I am a huge England fan.   Having spent a number of years living in England I became associated with the Leicester Tigers RUFC and have supported England ever since.

Although Wales successfully retained the Six Nations this year defeating England in the decider and with the Welsh national coach at the helm of the Lions squad, it’s no surprise to see a lot of Welsh players in this squad (15). England have 10 players (of which 6 are from my beloved Tigers), nine Irishman and three Scots. The squad is also a balance of youth and experience.

Fullbacks

Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Stuart Hogg ( Scotland), Rob Kearney (Ireland)

Halfpenny was player of the tournament in the Six Nations and will be the test 15. His goal kicking is supreme and rarely makes a mistake in general play. I’m a massive fan of Rob Kearney. You always know what you’ll get from him and never lets his side down. And Hogg was fantastic for Scotland during the Six Nations and his form in that tournament is rewarded by a squad spot.

Wingers

Tommy Bowe (Ireland), Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Sean Maitland (Scotland), George North (Wales)

All 4 had solid campaigns and deserved their spots in the squad. The combination that Cuthbert and North formed with Halfpenny across the back three for Wales suggests to me that will be enough for them to start versus the Wallabies in Brisbane for the First Test. Tommy Bowe is an excitement machine and Sean Maitland had glimpses of brilliance debuting for Scotland on the back of his time for the Crusaders in Super Rugby.

Centres

Jonathan Davies (Wales), Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Manu Tualiagi (England)

This is one spot I think the Lions have the edge over the Wallabies. A combination of youth and experience I mentioned earlier plus the powerhouse in Manu Tualagi who has the ability to cause any centre combination trouble. Jamie Roberts really impressed me for Wales in the Six Nations and it will be interesting to see who Gatland chooses to partner Roberts (assuming he’ll start).

It was unclear whether O’Driscoll would tour due to whispers about him retiring. For me he is one of the best 13’s in the world and always has brilliant games for club and country. He has the ability to turn the opposition defence inside out and would have been my captain for the experience he brings to the table with the youth in the squad.

But saying that, I like Tualagi at outside. He is a machine when it comes to line breaks and will cause Adam Ashley-Cooper and Robbie Deans headaches should he be selected. His best game for England was the win against the All Blacks in 2012. The Wallabies will have to watch these two positions with interest and overcome the brilliance that oozes from these players.

Fly Halves

Owen Farrell (England), Jonathon Sexton (Ireland)

Surprising Gatland has picked only two 10’s for the 10 match tour. Sexton will no doubt start for the first Test. Farrell has been brilliant for England at times and brings a cool head and a sharp shooter boot to the table. He is also an added option at inside centre. Don’t be surprised if we see Jonny Wilkinson bought into the squad after his commitments with Toulon have elapsed. A thorn in Australia’s side, he is playing some of his best rugby for Toulon propelling them into the Heineken Cup final in a Man of the Match effort v Saracens last week. Should he come, Gatland will use him to close games out in the final 20 mins should the Lions be in front or a tight contest. Watch this space. Excitement plus for me.

Scrum Halves

Conor Murray (Scotland), Mike Phillips (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)

Probably the toughest spot for Gatland to pinpoint.  Combating the worlds best 9 in Will Genia will be THE biggest problem for the Lions. Genia’s kicking game will add to the problems that the Lions could encounter.

Wales Mike Phillips might get the nod being the huge man and physical player that he is but I do like Ben Youngs though. The England and Leicester scrum half can nip the heels of Genia and be a pest for him during the series. This is another position I’m watching carefully to see which way Gatland will go. Danny Care was unlucky to miss out since he was solid for England and has been sensational for Harlequins this season. Scotland’s Greg Laidlaw is also unlucky.

Props

Dan Cole (England), Cian Healy (Ireland), Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Matt Stevens (England), Mako Vunipola (England)

Now we get down to the business. The backs have had the spotlight and will finish the business. But we “breakdown” the workhorses that will get the backs over the line. A couple of shocks were the inclusions of England pairing of Stevens and Vunipolo. Vunipolo struggled to gain a starting spot for England in the Six Nations but he is a man mountain of a man, while Stevens (originally retiring from International Rugby last August) is an experienced campaigner.

I think Gatland will look to this pairing to play the tour games with Jenkins and Healy as loose heads for the Tests and Cole and Jones as the tight heads. England’s scrums have been powerful in recent times causing opposition packs problems. But they were comprehensively beaten by the Welsh pack in the Six Nations decider, hence the selections of Jenkins and Jones. Healy and Cole were instrumental for their country’s earlier in the year and I see a dominance here for the Lions.

Hookers

Dylan Hartley (England), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Tom Youngs (England)

As stated earlier, I’m surprised with the non selection of Rory Best. I would have taken him over Dylan Hartley who hasn’t set the world on fire and lost his England spot to Tom Youngs. Throw in Hibbard and Gatland is again spoilt for choice in his front row with all three hookers chosen having great line out throws and their solid work rate around the pitch.

Locks

Ian Evans (Wales), Richie Gray (Scotland), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Paul O’Connell (Ireland), Geoff Parling (England)

I like the mix Gatland has chosen here. Gray has come into his own since the last Scotland tour of Australia and was again solid in the Six Nations. O’Connell captained the Lions to South Africa in 2009 so he brings that experience with fellow Irishman O’Driscoll and Kearney. I like Jones and Parling though. Both offered their respective countries a lot and Parling in particular has continued that form for Leicester.  One name I would have liked to have seen was Scotland’s Jim Hamilton, who earned two Man of the Match efforts in the Six Nations.

Back Rowers

Tom Croft (England), Toby Faletau (Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric (Wales), Sam Warburton (Wales)

This again is where the Lions will have a massive advantage. The non selection of Robshaw I think is wrong. Robshaw was injured recently for Harlequins but being a national captain and the work rate he brings, Gatland’s biggest mistake with this squad is not selecting him.  Dan Lydiate gets the nod even though he too has been injured.

Loads of options here. Croft is back after a serious neck injury and a specialist 6 as is O’brien. Tipuric and Faletau were outstanding for Wales and Warburton, even though losing his Welsh spot and ultimately the captaincy, has worked his way back. He can play either side of the pack and will lead the squad. The loss of David Pocock for the Wallabies will be massive and I expect the Lions back rowers to exploit that.

My squad for the first test;

1/ Jenkins
2/ T Youngs
3/ Cole
4/ Parling
5/ A W Jones
6/ Croft
7/ Warburton (c)
8/ Faletau

9/ B Youngs
10/ Sexton
11/ Cuthbert
12/ Roberts
13/ Tualagi
14/ North
15/ Halfpenny

16/ Hibbard
17/ A Jones
18/ O’Connell
19/ Tipuric
20/ Phillips
21/ O’Driscoll
22/ Kearney

This is obviously a massive series which I and no doubt everyone else is excited about and looking forward to. As much as I would love the Lions to win 3-0, it’s hard to clean sweep a series so I’ll back the Lions 2-1. Now we await the announcement of the Wallabies squad and where the names of Cooper, O’Connor and Beale appear, if at all. Bring on the first test at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium on June 22.

 

 

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