Which players will roar for Lions in 2013?
June 22, 2012
Will Wales' Sam Warburton be leading out the British & Irish Lions in Brisbane a year today?
© Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions will tackle Australia in the first Test of an eagerly-awaited series exactly one year from today - but who will line-up for the elite tourists in Brisbane?
A epic season must play out before what will surely be an incredible occasion at the magnificent Suncorp Stadium with hopes and dreams of making the trip set to rise and fall along the way. The strong showing from the Home Nations during the current inter-hemisphere skirmishes suggests that the Lions will possess a formidable bite come 2013 with the battle to get on the plane to Australia - via Hong Kong - set to be every bit as intense and thrilling as the showdown with the Wallabies.
The spectacle that is a Lions tour returned to its brilliant best in South Africa in 2009 to make the prospect of sharing in the experience even more alluring. Thirty-seven players were initially chosen to make that memorable trip and that will no doubt be the blueprint for the Lions' latest challenge that is set to be orchestrated by Wales coach Warren Gatland - but who will emerge as the best of the best?
We gaze into our crystal ball to predict who will spearhead the Lions' quest for glory.
15. Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
Ireland's Rob Kearney may be seen by many as the best fullback at the Lions' disposal but Halfpenny's versatility and rocket-like boot will surely emerge as a key weapon for the tourists. Cruelly denied a starring role in 2009 by a thigh injury, expect him to shine Down Under but there remains time for England's Ben Foden to press his claims.
14. Chris Ashton (England)
He may be without a try in his last eight Test outings but a move to Saracens should re-ignite his career and propel him back to his best form. Ireland's Tommy Bowe, who will also be embarking on a fresh challenge with Ulster, may have some valid claims to the No.14 shirt having put his injury concerns behind him.
13. Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland)
The talismanic Irishman famously cemented his status as one of the world's best centres on the Lions' last visit to Australia in 2001 and their latest visit could provide a fitting send-off. But there is no room for emotion when it comes to selection so expect O'Driscoll to defy injury and earn his place with another stand-out season and hold off the challenge of the likes of England's Manu Tuilagi.
12. Jamie Roberts (Wales)
Voted the Lions' best player during their bruising battle with the Boks in 2009, Roberts remains a class act. Given Wales' familiarity with Australia, the Wallabies will be well aware of the threat posed by Roberts but stopping him should prove another matter altogether.
11. George North (Wales)
The giant Welsh wing has notched 11 tries in his first 23 Tests and should he maintain that impressive strike-rate over the next year then it may well end up deciding the series. Such is his current status on the world stage, he may well be the first name on the team sheet but should Scotland's Tim Visser transfer his domestic form to the Test stage then he may well force his way into the reckoning.
10. Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
The stage is set for a new fly-half to write his name into Lions folklore but who will be tasked with dictating proceedings in Australia? Sexton's game-breaking best may see him handed the honour ahead of Wales' Rhys Priestland with the battle between Owen Farrell and Toby Flood for the England No.10 shirt also set to be a key indicator as to their hopes.
9. Mike Phillips (Wales)
Phillips was another star performer on the 2009 tour of South Africa and having helped propel Wales to the Six Nations Grand Slam he remains the leading contender to fill the No.9 shirt again. But the battle between Ben Youngs and Danny Care for the England scrum-half spot may lift both into the frame.
1. Cian Healy (Ireland)
Healy's impressive industry has carried him to new heights of late and that significant momentum may yet carry him to Australia and into the Lions' Test side. Wales' Gethin Jenkins may have something to say about that so expect fireworks in the next few months.
2. Dylan Hartley (England)
Perhaps the most open of positions, it is destined to be the most keenly-contested during the November internationals and next year's Six Nations. Ireland's Rory Best may hold the aces at present but Hartley, who will captain his country for the first time this weekend, looks poised to silence his critics once and for all.
3. Adam Jones (Wales)
A truly world-class player, Jones will be expected to spearhead of formidable-looking Lions pack. He has three Grand Slam triumphs to his name and has set his sights on 100 caps - a path that will no doubt include another three appearances for the Lions.
4. Richie Gray (Scotland)
The shaggy-haired lock has been tipped for a place on the 2013 tour ever since he emerged on the international stage. He may not have reached the heights he hit during the 2011 Six Nations but his pace and all-round athletic ability make him a certain tourist.
5. Geoff Parling (England)
Parling made his international breakthrough during this year's Six Nations but don't expect his ascent to stop there. Another eye-catching season with the Tigers in the Premiership could see him calling the shots at lineout time for the Lions. The experience of Ireland's Paul O'Connell also looms large.
6. Tom Croft (England)
An ever-present in the Lions' Test side in South Africa, he remains a potent threat at the set-piece and in the loose. A superb try against France in this year's Six Nations was the latest reminder of the damage he can do but he will need to maintain that kind of form with the likes of Wales' Dan Lydiate and Ireland's Stephen Ferris breathing down his neck.
7. Sam Warburton (Wales)
Warburton's qualities are well known to Gatland and the rest of the world thanks to his exploits at last year's World Cup. That tournament proved to be a major learning experience for the flanker and a likely titanic tussle with the Wallabies' first-choice, and arguably the world's best, openside David Pocock is one of the major draw cards for the series. But he will not be able to rest on his laurels with the likes of England's Chris Robshaw, Ireland's Sean O'Brien and Scotland's Ross Rennie bound to be in the hunt.
8. Toby Faletau (Wales)
The 21-year-old was one of the driving forces behind Wales' run to the Rugby World Cup semi-finals and the Grand Slam and as a result must be favourite to retain the support of Gatland and anchor the Lions' scrum. But don't be too surprised if another relative newcomer in Scotland's David Denton causes the Lions' management to stop and think.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter