Lions Squad Predictor: The Front Row

front row
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

34 thoughts on “Lions Squad Predictor: The Front Row

  1. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Marler or Mako on the bench as an impact sub. Although Healy is basically another flanker xD

      1. I think you’re right there mate. But the props on the bench will definitely be impact subs incase the tactic of scrum domination (Jones and Jenkins/Healy) doesn’t work against a dynamic Australian team (who will be expecting it). Cole and Mako on the bench would probably bring this in abundance

  2. I’d quite like to see Mako on the tour. Looking at the other props, we have Healy or Jenkins and Jones or Cole on each side of the scrum, and of all the names on the ‘possibles’ list, Vunipola is someone that could potentially play himself into the Test side, or at least onto the bench for impact.

    The other names just aren’t as exciting for me…

  3. Can’t really disagree with any of this. Which is no fun at all. Pick someone ludicrous tomorrow so we can all argue a lot.

  4. seems all pretty spot on. this is probably one of the least contentious units.

    i think that the touring front rowers will be all of the definites and all of the probables. Mako may nip in over Grant, but Grant would deserve a spot if given it.

    with Hibbard, Best and T. Youngs making the hooker boarding passes theirs, it seems that the only real ones up for grabs are the 3rd choice loosehead and tighthead.

    its between Mako and Grant for loosehead (i think time has run out for Corbs)
    and Murray and Ross for the tighthead slot. Murray may sneak it, he was a previous lion, seems like a bit of a character, and its one more for the scots quota! ;)

    i think that an injury to any of the looseheads will see Sheridan get a call up. Although he is likely to play Top 14 final with toulon, which will mean not leaving with the rest of the squad, an injury would mean someone new coming in, and chances are these will be the opportunities french based players involved in the finals will get.

    1. Sheridan was already a bit out of favour before he left for France – I haven’t seen him do anything to excel so much since then that Gatland would bend his preference for UK based players to include Sheridan?

      1. Gats will probably be at Twickers for Sarries v Toulon on Sunday – Vunipola and Sheridan both in action potentially. Not to mention Farrell v Wilko.

  5. Hibbard might be out injured – knee ligaments on the weekend. Ken Owens could make the possibles?

  6. So you’ve not actually been watching any Rabo Direct Pro 12 then?

    Ken Owens has been outstanding and is a shocking omission from this article.

    Strauss?! Ford?!

  7. Healy – big ball carrier and good form
    Vunipola – fantastic season and great impact sub
    Grant – good form, solid
    (might have had Jenkins but ruled out him and Sheridan for their france base)
    Cole – wales game aside, recently demolishing front rows everywhere (inc. the mighty Toulon’s) and work at the breakdown better than most “out and out 7s (most cliched phrase of the year)
    Jones – scrummaging monster

    Hibbard – hope he recovers, good all round
    Youngs – fantastic impact player, especially on hard ground
    Best – fallen off form for me, experienced yes, but throwing abysmal atm

    1. I actually completely agree with this! The only thing I think may happen, although I’d rather it didn’t, is that Jenkins may go over Grant.

    2. I think you are right in that French based players, likely to be involved in Top 14 deciders, aren’t going to make the cut. I don’t think there will be a hard rule of no French players as I can’t see him excluding Philips, but would be very surprised to see Jenkins or Sheridan make the initial selection. I think it’s unlikely that in a squad of 5 or 6 props that none will go uninjured, so expect Jenkins will end up going, just not in the initial squad.

      I’m a big fan of Vunipola, but I think the main issue with his inclusion is Healey. I don’t see having 2 props, where their X factor is what they bring in the loose rather than the tight, will be the right squad composition. So I think we will see Paul James (who also did a number on Cole), Ryan Grant and Cian Healey go.

      On the other side of the scrum I would pick Ross as the 3rd prop. He’s so reliable in the scrum (Murray can be hot and not!) and we need an anchor we can trust.

      Agree with the 3 hookers, but I’m hoping Hibbard stays fit as I don’t think Best (on 6n form) or Youngs are looking like test starters.

      1. I am pretty sure that Jenkins will travel.

        The IRB regulations say that any player can opt to play for the lions over their club. Jenkins is leaving Toulon anyway, so I doubt he would be wanting to warm the bench for Toulon if he could be on a lions tour.

        Phillips won’t be involved in the top 14 final, so he will be free to travel.

        1. I would be surprised if players can be extracted from their clubs against the will of the club for a non cap match against the Barbarians. Toulon would have a good argument (in my opinion) that they aren’t preventing anyone from making the Lions tests, they just aren’t available for first fixture and it’s a Lions selection decision as to whether they want people joining the tour late or not.

          1. I did ponder if this meant Gatland may just pick him and then have the fight over access. I hope he doesn’t as a big spat over player access would just be diverting attention and energy from where it needs to be in my opinion.

          2. IRB regulation 9.6b.

            If Jenkins wants to play for the lions, then Toulon have to let him go. There won’t be any debate over release

          3. I can’t reply to Simo’s comment so I am putting it here:

            I am pretty sure that the IRB regulation only refers to the capped matches (ie. no the barbarians match), and therefore he doesn’t have to be released as it is a non-cap match. The fact that WG wants everyone to leave at the same time is his choice, and one that Toulon will not care about.

            In 2009, Hines had to come to an agreement with Clermont in order to be released.

          4. Jacob, please see below regulation 9.6b

            “(b) Combined Teams Designated Release Events:
            (i) The quadrennial British and Irish Lions Tour is a Designated Event and all Players selected to participate shall be released. The Release Period shall ordinarily1 commence on 1 June and ordinarily conclude on the 2nd weekend of July in the relevant year.”

            This does not mention capped or non-capped matches, but in fact states for the entire release period. Also, notice the part where it says “all players selected… Shall be released”. Gatland can have who he wants, but I don’t think he is willing to start that big a fight when there are similar players available. Also the players will “opt out of touring” if made to make a choice, because it would be silly to bite the hand that feeds you. However, Jenkins is leaving Toulon, therefore I doubt he cares much about upsetting them. Also as I understand it Hines did not make much of an agreement with Perpignan at the time, he simply opted to travel with the lions. And either way, Perpignan could not stop him if that was his choice.

            So to summarise for everyone who is still debating it. IRB regulation 9 means that any players selected (and willing) will be in Hong Kong on the 1st of June.

          5. Fair enough Simo. I thought there was more to it than that, but that regulation pretty much makes sense. Jenkins will probably tour then.

          6. Thanks for the explanation Simo, Gatland seems to hold the aces!

            If he is going to select players the clubs won’t want to release I would have preferred him to establish the strength of his position before announcing the squad rather than becoming embroiled in a messy argument after the announcement.

  8. I certainly wouldn’t have Cole on the plane, his overrateness was clearly highlighted throughtout the 6N and was clearly outplayed in every department in the Welsh match. Paul James has to be on the plane, covering both sides of the front row, along with Alex Corbisiero. Therefore AJ, CH along with GJ making 5 Props. Along with 3 hockers, Hibbard (1st choice) Best and Youngs.

    1. The English tight 5 were out gunned by a much bigger and more experience Welsh unit. It was a collective issue and this doesn’t make Dan Cole a bad prop. You aren’t number 1 at your club, with Castro in the squad, without being very good at your job.

      Jones is the slam dunk test starter at the moment, I hope he stays fit, but Cole is still top class back up.

    2. I have to disagree with you here Welsh David. Dan Cole did have a poor 6 nations by his standards but showed what he is really capable against Toulon in the Heineken Cup quarter. He also almost acts as another backrow at the breakdown. However, unless there is injury to AJ he won’t be a starter for the test team. I would also take Ryan Grant and controversially start him at 1 in front of both Jenkins and Healy. He is in great form and this shows in the recent Glasgow vs Ospreys match where for me he outplayed AJ at scrum time and also pop up for a brace of tries. I completely agree with your hooker selection however.

  9. I’ve got to say I find myself disagreeing with all those saying Cole is over rated. Any one who’s played in the front row knows that you will get stuffed if the other 2 inside you are inept, of which (in comparison) Youngs/Vunipola/Marler are in the scrum, especially against a powerful Welsh front row.

    Proof easily seen against Toulon where he and Ayerza stuffed them. And while he may not be a dynamic runner, he is a turnover machine in the loose, I think he goes.

    Agree with rest of the article.

  10. I’ve got to say I find myself disagreeing with all those saying Cole is over rated. Any one who’s played in the front row knows that you will get stuffed if the other 2 inside you are inept, of which (in comparison) Youngs/Vunipola/Marler are in the scrum, especially against a powerful Welsh front row.

    Proof easily seen against Toulon where he and Ayerza stuffed them. And while he may not be a dynamic runner, he is a turnover machine in the loose, I think he goes.

    Agree with rest of the article.

  11. I’ve got to say I find myself disagreeing with all those saying Cole is over rated. Any one who’s played in the front row knows that you will get stuffed if the other 2 inside you are inept, of which (in comparison) Youngs/Vunipola/Marler are in the scrum, especially against a powerful Welsh front row.

    Proof easily seen against Toulon where he and Ayerza stuffed them. And while he may not be a dynamic runner, he is a turnover machine in the loose, I think he goes.

    Agree with rest of the article.

    1. Agreed. Cole is excellent – the fact he’s not able to dominate the Welsh front row doesn’t make him rubbish given that for some of us that Welsh front row in that last test could be a decent shout for the Lions front row.

      That’s the thing with Lions selections, we’re choosing between the best of the best. Saying Cole is behind Jones isn’t saying he’s rubbish, far from it. He is a certainty to tour.

  12. Interesting article on today’s Telegraph, stating that Toulon have had no contact from the Lions management since November last year.

    Probably means that Jenkins, Wilkinson, Sheridan, Armitage and any others are definitely not under consideration

    With that in mind, I’d go for


    i presume there will be 6 props

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  14. I would go for: props – Healy, Jenkins, Vunipola, Jones, Cole, Ross.
    Hookers – Best, Hibbard, Youngs

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