Who will roar for the Lions?
April 28, 2013
Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan talks about what it is like to be head coach in the lead up to the squad announcement%]
The wait is almost over. The rugby world - including those players hoping to earn selection - will find out who British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has selected for this summer's tour to Australia on Tuesday morning.
2013 British & Irish Lions
A season-long trial has produced eye-catching performances, injury heartache and no end of drama with food for thought at every turn. The most recent clashes in the battle for European supremacy served as one final audition with Gatland and his assistants set for one final selection meeting on Monday to nail down their choices. But who will be leaping around in front of their TV when the squad is finally announced?
Gatland has hinted that he may take as many as 38 players Down Under and there can be little doubt that the squad will have a strong Welsh flavour given his ties with a Wales side that has emerged as the dominant northern hemisphere side in recent years with a Rugby World Cup semi-final appearance and back-to-back Six Nations titles to their name.
We are also led to believe that form and fitness will be the key selection criteria that must be of concern to those players recently returned from injury and short of game time. There is simply no time or space for players to gain either while immersed on what will be a gruelling 10-match, six-week tour.
There is also a head-scratching schedule clash of the Lions' opening tour game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong and the Top 14 final counting against those players based in France and likely to be involved in the title-decider.
With time already against the Lions as they prepare to tackle the Wallabies, Gatland is keen to ensure the squad leave together in the immediate aftermath of the Premiership and PRO12 finals but he may be forced to accept late arrivals due to the outstanding form of those excelling across the Channel.
Here's my 38-man selection - 17 backs and 21 forwards - how many of these would you take?
Fullback: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Rob Kearney (Ireland)
Halfpenny will sleep the easiest tonight having arguably been the most consistent player in Europe for a year or more. Hogg's dazzling speed and footwork in the Six Nations will have not gone unnoticed, on both sides of the world, while Kearney offers experience and expertise in equal measure.
Wings: George North (Wales), Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Sean Maitland (Scotland), Tommy Bowe (Ireland)
North and Cuthbert's value is there for all to see and they will be key components in the Lions' armoury. Maitland's pace could also come into play with his rapid rise - having only made his Scotland bow earlier this year - taking him past team-mate Tim Visser who for so long looked destined to travel. Completing the quartet is Bowe who offers much-needed experience while there is no place for England's Chris Ashton.
Centres: Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Jonathan Davies (Wales), Manu Tuilagi (England), Brad Barritt (England)
O'Driscoll and Roberts are set to rekindle the partnership that served the Lions well in 2009 but Davies and Tuilagi will not be there for the ride with both offering game-breaking ability in abundance. Barritt's rock-solid defensive qualities make him a valuable asset on a tour where the Lions are expected to take a battering.
Fly-halves: Jonathan Sexton (Ireland), Owen Farrell (England)
The Lions' No.10 shirt has long-appeared destined for Sexton whose return to form and fitness in recent weeks will have settled a few nerves. Farrell's star may have fallen a little - most notably in his showdown with Jonny Wilkinson - but there is still time for him to rediscover his mojo. There is no fly-half cover elsewhere in the squad so the door remains open for Wilkinson to join the tour in Australia.
Scrum-halves: Mike Phillips (Wales), Ben Youngs (England), Danny Care (England)
Phillips' physicality has always been a key aspect of his appeal with his all-round game appearing to improve in the Six Nations with a Lions tour on the horizon. Youngs and Care are more of a physical match for Wallabies No.9 Will Genia and offer a similar level of dynamism.
Props: Cian Healy (Ireland), Gethin Jenkins (Toulon), Mako Vunipola (England), Adam Jones (Wales), Dan Cole (England), Paul James (Wales)
A ban blighted Healy's Six Nations but not enough to deny him a first Lions tour. Jenkins could well be released for the tour by Toulon having failed to nail down a first team place - and you sense Gatland would also like to take his team-mate Andrew Sheridan. Jones is guaranteed a second tour and will challenge Cole for a Test berth while Vunipola would represent a gamble - but his athleticism could be key on the hard pitches they can expect. James' versatility is a huge plus given the usual casualty rate on tour.
Hookers: Rory Best (Ireland), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Tom Youngs (England)
Best and Hibbard look like the most likely to fill the No.2 shirt for the Test series but Youngs will have the chance to prove he is more than an impact sub.
Second rows: Paul O'Connell (Ireland), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Ian Evans (Wales), Joe Launchbury (England), Geoff Parling (England)
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. A fit-again O'Connell is clearly fresh and hungry. Jones and Evans were key figures in Wales' most recent Six Nations triumph while Parling's tactical nous and Launchbury's athleticism make them more than able deputies. Scotland's Riche Gray looked destined for inclusion for so long but did not hit the heights expected of him in the Six Nations with injury denting his hopes further.
Flankers: Sam Warburton (Wales), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Sean O'Brien (Ireland), Tom Croft (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales)
Warburton was another to rediscover form at just the right time in the Six Nations with Tipuric having shown that he is also more than capable of filling the No.7 shirt with distinction. Croft's relatively fresh legs are sure to trouble defences and while Lydiate has not had as much game time since his return from injury, Gatland will be reluctant to leave the 2012 Six Nations Player of the Championship behind. O'Brien's ability to play across the back-row will likely see him get the nod ahead of two national captains - England's Chris Robshaw and Scotland's Kelly Brown.
No.8s: Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales)
Faletau will pack down against the Wallabies barring any injuries but Heaslip's recent return to the kind of all-action form that made him such a valuable asset on the 2009 tour means Gatland has strength in depth.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
Ireland have the world sitting up and taking notice - and rugby's structure in Europe will aid their Rugby World Cup bid, writes John Mitchell