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With the Six Nations over and done, the eyes of the Rugby Union world turn towards the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour this summer.
An amalgamation of the best players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Lions tour the Southern Hemisphere just once every four years. Representing the Lions on a winning tour is every bit as prestigious as winning the World Cup itself.
Unfortunately, the Lions have not been on a winning tour since their 1997 excursion to South Africa, but there is a growing feeling that they could end their 16-year wait this summer when they take on Australia.
With relative performances in the Six Nations taken into account, here is a look at the potential team which could line-up for the Lions in the first Test in Sydney on June 22.
1. Loosehead Prop – Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
Jenkins has struggled to nail down a starting position at his club Toulon, and was considered by some as having little chance to make the Lions tour. A great Six Nations campaign for Wales has catapulted him into the frontrunners jersey, but he will be run close by Cian Healy, and could be ousted by Alex Corbisiero, if he can return to form and fitness in time.
2. Hooker – Dylan Hartley (England)
Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland has been critical of Hartley previously, but the hooker’s abrasive on-field demeanour and intensity might be something which Gatland believes could serve the Lions well in Australia.
3. Tighthead Prop – Adam Jones (Wales)
This always looked to be a two-horse race between Jones and Dan Cole, but the Welshman took the lead during the Six Nations when he was arguably the best scrummager in the competition.
4. Lock – Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Similar to Jenkins, AW Jones was probably on the periphery of the Lions squad prior to the Six Nations, but a strong campaign has improved his stock dramatically.
5. Lock – Geoff Parling (England)
There is no more lineout-savvy forward currently playing in the British Isles. Parling will be key to competing with the Australian forwards at the set-piece.
6. Blindside Flanker – Chris Robshaw (England) Captain
Although Robshaw plays as an openside flanker for England, he is not a natural openside, one of which will be needed to compete at the breakdown with Australia. He could comfortably play at six, where his biggest competition comes from national team colleague Tom Wood and the powerful Sean O’Brien.
7. Openside Flanker – Justin Tipuric (Wales)
Tipuric seems to have beaten Sam Warburton to the seven jersey for Wales, and expect him to do the same for the Lions. A warrior at the breakdown, he has also really improved his ball-carrying skills.
8. Number 8 – Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
Heaslip didn’t have the greatest Six Nations for Ireland, but he is still the most complete eight available. Dynamic ball-carriers like Ben Morgan and Toby Faletau could challenge him if they are in-form and healthy.
9. Scrum-half – Ben Youngs (England)
This selection is hard on Greg Laidlaw, who has been in great form, but Youngs is arguably a more balanced scrum-half. This also allows for the dynamic Mike Phillips to come off the bench as a game changer.
10. Fly-half – Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
Sexton missed the majority of the Six Nations through injury, but the other fly-halves arguably did not show enough to make Gatland consider them over the Irishman. Owen Farrell would most likely then be on the bench, and his accurate goal kicking and fierce defense could be vital late in games.
11. Winger – George North (Wales)
A big, powerful winger, North will provide the perfect foil to a smaller, quicker winger on the other side of the pitch. Welsh compatriot Alex Cuthbert is also a strong contender for this position.
12. Inside Centre – Manu Tuilagi (England)
Tuilagi can use his strength and power to create something out of nothing, especially if the Australian defense is stifling the Lions’ attempts to move the ball wide.
13. Outside Centre – Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
The easiest selection in the entire squad, O’Driscoll may not be getting any younger, but he is still one of the best players in the world. Excellent distribution skills, uncompromising defense, and a rugby brain that any player would be envious of – a must start at 13.
14. Winger – Christian Wade (England)
Wade is a real wildcard considering he hasn’t represented England yet, but his scintillating pace and devastating sidestep could cause havoc on the hard, dry grounds of Australia. It also gives him the edge over Tim Visser, and the currently injured Irish duo of Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe.
15. Fullback – Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
Undoubtedly the form fullback after the Six Nations, his goal kicking, ability under the high ball, and reliability make him the obvious choice. He has competition from a plethora of players including Rob Kearney, Stuart Hogg, Ben Foden and Mike Brown, all of whom could offer an intriguing option off of the bench.
Image Courtesy : Official Lions Rugby