Tuesday 30th of April: the most important day in every British and Irish rugby player’s season. The day when they will know whether they have achieved the highest accolade the game of rugby can offer: the chance to tour with the British & Irish Lions. Some will be expecting the call from Warren Gatland, others will be waiting nervously by their phones. Whoever is chosen will join a select group of players to have proudly worn that red jersey. Here, my brother and I pick our 37 man band of merry men hoping to roar to success down-under this summer.
Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, George North (Wales)
Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo (Ireland)
Tim Visser, Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
One of the easier selections. The Welsh trio of North, Cuthbert and Halfpenny are shoe-ins, and in Halfpenny, the Lions have a genuinely world-class performer. Simon Zebo and Stuart Hogg are relatively inexperienced at this level but consequently should play without fear, and most importantly they have an abundance of pace and skill. Visser is a physically imposing player who is an impressive finisher and Tommy Bowe provides experience having toured to South Africa in 2009. Rob Kearney will be on stand-by should any injuries occur.
Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies (Wales)
Manu Tuilagi (England)
Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
We have picked only four centres on the provision that Tommy Bowe can provide cover as can James Hook and Owen Farrell. This midfield is not exactly brimming with creativity and Billy Twelvetrees was seriously considered, but we decided to stick with experience. All four have played down-under before and Roberts and O’Driscoll formed an effective partnership four years ago. Tuilagi is a wrecking-ball of a centre and will cause havoc in both attack and defence, and O’Driscoll, although he doesn’t have the pace of old, will be equally tenacious. The Irishman is also a dab hand as a makeshift back-rower.
Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
Owen Farrell (England)
James Hook (Wales)
Injury permitting, Ireland’s Sexton is a guaranteed starter. He seems to be back to full fitness and played a key role in Leinster’s victory over Biarritz on Saturday. Elsewhere, Farrell does the basics well, has a very solid kicking game and can be trusted to close out games. James Hook should provide some flair which will be crucial if they find themselves with a deficit to overcome. Dan Biggar is unlucky to miss out, but his lack of versatility counts against him, and Jonny Wilkinson won’t be available for the start of the tour.
Mike Phillips (Wales)
Danny Care (England)
Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)
Phillips is an easy choice. He was in good form for Wales during the Six Nations and had a storming last tour to South Africa in 2009. His deputies are less obvious. Greig Laidlaw had an equally impressive Six Nations and has the passing ability to provide quick ball to the backs. He is also dead-eye as a place-kicker. Danny Care is selected for his tireless running and sniping around the rucks. He hasn’t always played his best in an England shirt, but he has been in good form for Harlequins. The Englishman will be effective off the bench against tiring Wallabies and he has that edge to his game to get under the opposition’s skin. He just edges out Ben Youngs who doesn’t quite have a good enough passing game. Conor Murray is also an option, but in our opinion he is just a less-good version of Mike Phillips.
Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola, Andrew Sheridan (England)
Cian Healy (Ireland)
One of the key positions in the squad. The Aussies are not renowned as strong scrummagers and if the Lions can compete up front, the platform will be laid for victory. Adam Jones and Dan Cole will give the Wallabies sleepless nights in the scrum whilst Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy will make an impact marauding in the loose. Vunipola is a young loose-head who has come on leaps and bounds in the past 18 months. The Englishman may not be a first-choice but can make a difference in both the scrum and the loose. Andrew Sheridan is our wild-card pick for his experience and his scrummaging ability. He has previous against the Aussies and seems to save his best performances for the Green and Golds.
Rory Best (Ireland)
Richard Hibbard (Wales)
Ross Ford (Scotland)
Another key position for the Lions. Best and Hibbard both had good Six Nations tournaments, with Hibbard taking advantage of Matthew Rees’ injury to put himself firmly in the Lions frame. Best has good leadership qualities which will be vital down-under. He also has the knack of scoring tries which is no bad thing. The final spot was between Ken Owens and Ross Ford, the Scotsman edging it due to his superior throwing ability.
Paul O’Connell (Ireland)
Ian Evans, Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Richie Gray (Scotland) (fitness permitting)
The engine room of the team – this selection was rather more obvious. After the disappointment of missing out on the Six Nations, Ireland’s Paul O’Connell has put in a series of strong displays for Munster in recent weeks and has been chosen as our captain. He is joined by two Welshmen, Alun Wyn Jones, a perennially top-class performer, and Ian Evans who did himself no harm with his sterling performances in the Six Nations. Richie Gray has not had a vintage season but is an absolute animal in the loose and has pace to burn. If his hamstring injury clears up then the Lions have a formidable second row capable of overpowering the Wallabies.
Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau (Wales)
Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
Chris Robshaw, Tom Croft (England)
The most hotly debated position in the squad. Warburton and Lydiate are genuine world-class performers in their respective positions, so are guaranteed spots on the plane. Tipuric is arguably in better form than Warburton at the present time, and has to be a contender for the all-important no. 7 jersey. Chris Robshaw has been immense all season and just edges Sean O’Brien out of the equation. Toby Faletau is the obvious choice at No. 8, and Jamie Heaslip completes the touring party. Nick Easter and Johnnie Beattie were considered, but the Irishman has the imposing physicality required of a No. 8 and had a successful tour with the Lions to South Africa last time around.
So there you have it. We’ve selected our 37. Warren Gatland, you are welcome. Whichever players the New Zealander picks, they have the opportunity to become immortalised. The Lions are the pinnacle of every British and Irish rugby professional. They will need to be at 100% from Aussies will definitely be raring to go. I like how Gatland has said his selections will be determined by current form. He is learning the lessons from Clive Woodward’s disastrous tenure in 2005. A player cannot find form during the tour – it is a fruitless exercise and a waste of a touring spot. For me, The Lions desperately need to have a strong showing to keep the mystique and intrigue of this quadrennial tour going. They haven’t won a tour since 1997 and have only won two test matches out of 9 since then. The absence of influential open-side flanker David Pocock for the Wallabies may well tip the balance in the Lions’ favour. Whatever the touring party, it promises to be a titanic battle. Roll on the summer.