The player exodus to France has been a point of contention in the rugby world for a while now, and it has only been exacerbated by Warren Gatland’s refusal (a couple of exceptions aside) to pick players involved in the latter stages of the Top 14.
The French league has certainly demonstrated the high calibre of its players throughout the course of this season. With financial reward attracting a number of quality names from across the UK over the Channel to ply their trade, it’s a little surprising there isn’t more of a French-based contingent on the plane to Australia with only Welsh-born Mike Phillips and Gethin Jenkins gaining their places.
Starting with the obvious; European Player of the Year and Heineken Cup Winner, Jonny Wilkinson, is said to be keen to answer any injury calls from Australia. We won’t dwell on Wilkinson as he has already been discussed to great length (and is said to have been approached by Gatland anyway) but there is no doubt he would slot right into the squad should he be needed. You’d be a brave man to bet against Wilkinson playing some sort of role in a Lions shirt this summer. Last minute drop goal anyone?
Wilkinson is not the only Toulon star to be eligible – the Armitage brothers have excelled again this season. Delon has been assured at full-back and has a real spark that can ignite any match. His winning try in the Heineken Cup Final was a true demonstration of his pace and finishing ability, although that wave and the ensuing Twitter warfare showed that he still has plenty of growing up to do.
Steffon has been ferocious and tenacious in the back row, with some of his earlier season performances leaving many crying out for him to be included on the tour. Sadly for him, however, the squad is not lacking for flankers. With Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood, not to mention Kelly Brown, definitely ahead of him in the reserves pecking order it is unlikely the elder Armitage brother will find himself wearing a Lions shirt this summer.
Matt Stevens was brought back in from the international wilderness to everyone’s surprise, but the unlikely prop many thought might make it was Andrew Sheridan. Regularly picked ahead of tourist Gethin Jenkins for club side Toulon, it would have provided a fascinating, and not necessarily beneficial, sub-plot.
Big but mobile lock Nathan Hines, who saw his Clermont Auvergne side come up short against Toulon in a gripping Heineken Cup final, is another former Lion to miss out. At 36 there is more reason for him not to be included, but even with his age his performances have certainly been of a higher quality this season than some of the men going (a certain compatriot of his springs to mind). Again, however, the likes of Joe Launchbury and Jim Hamilton will be wrestling with him for that spot at the top of the reserves list.
And what of fullback Lee Byrne, another from Clermont who featured on the last Lions tour and a player that was once touted as one of the best in his position in the world? He may have fallen from grace in the national stakes, but once again you suspect it is simply a case of there being equally good options plying their trade within the British Isles and Ireland. James Hook deserves a mention also, but it seems there is nothing he can do these days to convince the Welsh or Lions selectors that he is worthy of a spot.
So the Top 14 has provided a hot bed for young talent to thrive, as well as rejuvenating the careers of a number of older heads. The host of British players that featured in the Heineken Cup final are testament to this. The fact that Gatland supposedly invited Wilkinson to tour throws up mixed messages, but for the large part those based abroad have been snubbed for those playing in the home nations. Whether that is the right decision or not remains to be seen.
By Jono Frank and Jamie Hosie