With the squad announcement just around the corner and excitement reaching tangible levels, it is time to leave all reason and rationality at the door and speculate until our hearts are content about who will make that plane to Australia. Welcome to the first in our series of squad predictors – every day this week we’ll be considering one or more area of the squad, and trying (probably in vain) to decide who definitely, probably and possibly will be in Gatland’s final squad. As always, give us your thoughts in the comments section below.
Definites: Cian Healy, Adam Jones, Dan Cole, Rory Best
To say someone will ‘definitely’ be on the plane is perhaps to set yourself up for a fall, but it is hard to see any of the above men not making the tour. Cian Healy – ugly stamp on probable (definite?) tour-mate Dan Cole aside – has had an exemplary season for Leinster and Ireland, showing a newly solid scrummaging technique to go along with his devastating prowess with ball in hand. Adam Jones roared back to form in the Six Nations, culminating in the brilliance that was his performance against England. The man likely to vie with him for test selection was the man on the receiving end of that Welsh dominance, Dan Cole. They are hands down the top two tight-heads in contention. Rory Best will make the squad because he is the only first-choice hooker with any real international experience behind him – that does not mean he will definitely make the test team, however.
Probables: Gethin Jenkins, Richard Hibbard, Tom Youngs, Ryan Grant
Gethin Jenkins played himself right back into most peoples’ squads, along with most of the Welsh team, with that performance against England in Cardiff, but with the euphoria beginning to die down the harsh truth is that his being at Toulon is massively detrimental to his chances. He has at least been getting some game time of late – starting three of the last four games in the Top 14 – but Toulon have failed to win any of those games, and with Gatland’s reticence to pick France-based players his spot is certainly not confirmed. He is still more than likely to tour, but one man who could scupper that is Ryan Grant, who flitted between the probables and possibles list before ending up here. Scotland’s Six Nations campaign was largely a success – there is no debate about Grant’s form, however, which was sublime. Some strong showings for Glasgow have only furthered his cause, and he is probably the frontrunner for the third loose-head spot.
Richard Hibbard and Tom Youngs were both confirmed over the Six Nations as first choice for their respective countries, and as a result are not that experienced at the top level. They were both in fantastic form, however, which will probably see them tour. The only reason one might miss out is if Gatland decides he wants someone with a bit more experience.
Possibles: Mike Ross, Euan Murray, Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola, Andrew Sheridan, Ross Ford, Dylan Hartley, Paul James, Alex Corbisiero, Richardt Strauss
One of either Mike Ross or Euan Murray is likely to travel, as third choice tight-head – if Gatland decides he wants three, that is. Another option could be to take only five props in total, with one of either Paul James or Alex Corbisiero able to cover both sides of the scrum (at a push, if you’ll pardon the pun). Neither Ross nor Murray is good enough to challenge Jones and Cole for a test starting spot, so they would be there for midweek duty and injury cover only. Looking at the above list, it becomes obvious how skewed England’s depth is when comparing tight and loose-heads. Joe Marler was the starter for most of the Six Nations, but failed to really make that much of an impact, and was usurped by Mako Vunipola towards the end of the championship. Vunipola is young, no doubt about it, but provides far more of a threat in the loose than most other candidates and could be a potential surprise inclusion from Gatland.
Then there is Andrew Sheridan. He has played his best rugby since moving down to Toulon, and were it not for his likely involvement in the Top 14 final he may well have moved up to the probables list. Of course, not having played international rugby for the past few years doesn’t help his cause either. Dylan Hartley’s case rides on the aforementioned issue of experience, as does that of Ross Ford – if Gatland decides he needs someone at hooker with a bit more of it, these two are the best options.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43