The Pride has finally been chosen – and the British and Irish Lions are a step closer to facing the Wallabies later this summer. After weathering months of intense speculation, traipsing to every Aviva Premiership, Heinken Cup and international fixture humanly possible, Lions Coach Warren Gatland has finally narrowed down a torrent of potential talent to a crack team of just 37 players. And, as ever, he’s caused his fair share of controversies in the process.
Fullbacks – Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg and Rob Kearney
If there was one name indelibly etched on the team list from the start, that name was almost certainly Welsh Fullback Leigh Halfpenny. Exceptional performances in the Autumn internationals made Halfpenny stand out in an otherwise disheartened squad broken by a string of seemingly endless international defeats. A similarly impressive performance in Wales’ Six Nations campaign this year sealed his place on the tour.
Ireland’s Rob Kearney can’t have been quite as confident about his own place on the plane. A miserable Six Nations campaign for his side saw them finish fifth, but he remains a solid option at the back with extensive international experience.
Scotland’s Stuart Hogg may have seemed something of a wild card, but a quick glance at some of his stunning solo tries and runs for Glasgow back up Gatland’s choice. It’s been suggested that he will also provide cover at fly-half, should either of Gatland’s number tens pick up an injury.
England’s Andy Goode will surely be disappointed not to have got a look in, but the international experience of Kearney and Halfpenny seem to have edged him out.
Wing – Tommy Bowe , Alex Cuthbert, Sean Maitland, George North
Alex Cuthbert and George North were both widely expected to make the squad – so no surprises here. Cuthbert’s pace and skill saw him grab a brace of tries in silencing England’s Grand Slam hopes, while George North remains one of the most physically impressive and threatening wings in the European game.
Tommy Bowe also makes the cut, despite Ireland’s disappointing Six Nations, Gatland choosing to give him credit for his form in the green shirt in recent years
Scotland’s Sean Maitland has undergone a meteoric rise in his own rugby career, sealing a Lions place just three months after making his international debut. Gatland selected the former New Zealander, cousin of Wallaby Quade Cooper, for Waikato when he was still a school boy, so will know full well what Maitland is capable of.
Chris Ashton and Mike Brown were rightfully overlooked in this category, with Ashton having an unimpressive international season and Brown a natural fullback, but explosive Scottish winger Tim Visser might well feel aggrieved at his omission, alongside Ireland’s Simon Zebo.
Rugby fans worldwide were elated to hear Brian O’Driscoll’s name included in the squad, making it the veteran Irishman’s fourth Lions tour – although he misses out on the captaincy. Those who doubted O’Driscoll in his twilight years got a sharp wake up call in Ireland’s clash against Wales, when the centre drew in three opponents and got away a spectacular pass to Simon Zebo for the try.
England’s man mountain Manu Tuilagi is rewarded for his physicality and bone crunching runs with a place on the tour, although partner in crime Brad Barritt misses out.
Welsh duo Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies provide yet more of the Welsh contingent in the squad – the former having just qualifed as a doctor as well as making it onto his second Lions tour. Davies is the only regular inside centre to be selected, meaning that we may well see some of his centre colleagues playing out of position.
Flyhalves – Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton
Gatland’s decision to take just two specialist fly halves sent shock waves around the Lions fan base – as did the omission of Jonny Wilkinson despite his stellar Heineken Cup semi-final performance the previous weekend. It emerged, however, that Gatland had offered the former England man a place but was politely turned down – Wilkinson citing his commitments with Toulon and ongoing physical fitness concerns as his reasons for declining.
Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton was widely acknowledged as an obvious first choice, with reliable kicking, good game control and a fair amount of flair all working in his favour. In the absence of stand out candidates from Scotland and Wales, shortlisted IRB Player of the Year 2012 Owen Farrell gets the nod – a tremendous achievement for the 21 year old England flyhalf.
Ireland’s first choice scrummie Conor Murray makes the cut after a noteworthy personal performance in the Six Nations, even winning man of the match in Ireland’s 13-13 draw against France.
Mike Phillips also gets the nod as one of Europe’s most experienced and physical scrum halves in the business. Despite plying his trade in France for Bayonne, Phillips remains one of Wales’ most influential players – and recently became the country’s most capped scrum half in history.
England’s Ben Youngs gets the final place – with fellow England rival for the shirt Danny Care unlucky to miss out. An exceptional 80m try scored against Bath from a quick tap penalty last month can’t have done his chances any harm.
England’s Dan Cole has cemented his place as one of England’s starting props and sees his consistent form rewarded with a place on the Lions squad. Teammate Mako Vunipola was a surprise inclusion, usually coming off the bench for his country, but Gatland will hope he makes a dangerous impact as a substitute.
The shock inclusion of Matt Stevens sent heads reeling – despite good form for Saracens, Stevens retired from international rugby last year and has even served a two year ban for cocaine use. It’ll be interesting to see whether he makes the test squad, or whether a return to the international fray proves too much.
Ireland’s Cian Healy was expected to make it, as one of Ireland’s most trusted men in the front row. A nasty stamp on fellow Lion Dan Cole during the Six Nations was an indication of the sort of indiscipline he’ll need to curb in Australia.
Teammates Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones provide the Welsh representation in the front row, having both been as dependable as ever in their side’s successful Six Nations campaign.
Hookers – Dylan Hartley, Richard Hibbard, Tom Youngs
Stuart Lancaster will be chuffed to see England make up two thirds of Gatland’s hooker choices. Newcomer Tom Youngs continues with his impressive rise through the ranks, while former captain Dylan Hartley clinches a place despite coming off the bench in recent fixtures.
Wales’ Richard Hibbard brings extensive experience, having won his first cap for Wales almost 7 years ago. The overlooking of Ireland’s Rory Best has sparked considerable criticism – the former Ireland captain brings considerable experience and is considered one of the best in the business.
Second Row – Ian Evans, Richie Gray, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Geoff Parling
Another impressive Welsh duo Ian Evans and Alun Wyn Jones make up two of Gatland’s most experienced choices at lock.
Despite a disappointing club season with Sale Sharks and an international campaign blighted with injury, towering second row Richie Gray still makes it into the squad as Scotland’s final contribution.
No surprise to see Paul O’Connell on the team list, after several outstanding experiences captaining Munster in the Heineken Cup. The former Irish captain is unlucky to miss out on being made skipper, but will be one of Sam Warburton’s most vocal second in commands.
Geoff Parling is England’s sole representative in the second row, rewarded for a season of graft and dependability for his country. Magnificent in the line out, Parling will be a strong contender for a test spot on the tour.
Back Row – Sam Warburton (Captain), Tom Croft, Toby Faletau, Jamie Heaslip, Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric
A pair of Irishmen make it into the back row – Sean O’Brien, once labelled a ‘rampaging ball of destruction’ and deemed one of the ‘ Top Five Star Players’ at the last World Cup, lines up alongside Ireland skipper Jamie Heaslip.
Four Welshmen deservedly make it into Gatland’s squad, including Sam Warburton, who fights off competition for the captaincy from men with triple his experience. Six Nations player of 2012 Dan Lydiate has made it back from injury to secure a place, while Toby Falateau and Justin Tipuric offer explosive power from the scrum.
There’s no space for England’s Chris Robshaw, meaning that in a hugely unusual twist the incumbent England captain doesn’t make it onto the Lions tour. Hard to take for the Harlequins man, but a glance at his international competitors may well justify his exclusion in many rugby minds.