It’s Lions time again.
The pre-Six Nations buzz is deafening, and with it being a Lions year it is arguably even louder than normal. Here’s our team for January – we’ll publish a post-Six Nations team too, to see if form over the tournament has had any bearing on selection (which, of course, it will).
15: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
One of the most fascinating aspects of this Six Nations is set to be the battle between Kearney and Halfpenny for the Lions spot. Although one of the three English fullbacks could still make a late charge, you sense it is between these two. With Kearney having been injured and Halfpenny in, arguably, the form of his life, it is his shirt to lose at the moment.
14: Eli Walker (Wales)
Everyone loves a bolter. This is quite a brave selection, given that he is far from guaranteed to get game time for Wales over the Six Nations with the quality they have in this department, but if he does he will surely show that he can dazzle on the international stage too. Every time he plays he shows why, if he isn’t there already, he has the potential to be one of the most dangerous wingers in Europe. May not be ready for this summer, but if he has a good few games in the red of Wales he could well find himself wearing an even more prestigious red soon.
13: Jonathan Davies (Wales)
Probably one of the most underrated players in the Northern Hemisphere, Jon Davies has become crucial to Wales’ hopes of reversing the slide they are in. A powerfully compact player, he has a deceiving turn of pace that has caught defenders napping in the past. He also knows how to cut a good line, and is just the type of player who is capable of popping up on Tuilagi’s shoulder should he make one of his half-breaks.
12: Manu Tuilagi (England)
As big an injury blow as England could have had pre-Six Nations. He should be fit again for the second game, and will have the opportunity to lock this shirt down before the summer tour. Centre is not an area of great strength for the Home Nations, and if he can show a bit of the consistency that is perhaps lacking at the moment, he can become a vital part of the Lions team. He could yet have a future at 12 – it would certainly get him into the game more – and has been shifted inside to make room for Davies outside him. Given time to gel, it could be a potent midfield partnership.
11: Alex Cuthbert (Wales)
An all-Welsh back three is completed by the giant Cardiff winger. Narrowly shading George North, who hasn’t been in great form, Cuthbert’s power and offloading ability would be the perfect foil to Walker’s dazzling feet and outright pace. In an area of fierce competition, Ashton, Bowe and Visser (not to mention any of the other less experienced wingers) will provide competition.
10: Johnny Sexton (Ireland)
The position that so often divides opinion is ironically one of the most straightforward selections this year. England can’t decide who their man is for the future, Wales have Priestland injured, and Scotland haven’t had a commanding fly-half for years. Sexton has the composure and the experience to lead a Lions back-line. For all the talk of Jonny Wilkinson, it would be madness to select him ahead of the Irishman now.
9: Connor Murray (Ireland)
With Mike Phillips currently enjoying a little too much wine and cheese down in the South of France, the Irishman Murray has emerged as one of the favourites for the scrum-half berth. His game is similar in nature to that of Phillips, in that he can be very abrasive, and he has been in good form for Munster recently. Once again, a good Six Nations showing is vital, as he will be pushed all the way by England duo Youngs and Care.
1: Cian Healy (Ireland)
Another Irishman that is rapidly becoming one of the first names on the teamsheet, Healy has been a revelation over the past few months. Now with newly-consolidated scrummaging, he has lost none of his bite in the loose. Consistently at the forefront of barrelling forward runs over the gain-line for Leinster, if Healy can have a solid Six Nations in the scrum and finally silence the critics over this area of his game, he will be considered the favourite. Having said that, if Alex Corbisiero can get himself fit, he has the potential to challenge him.
2: Richard Hibbard (Wales)
The Ospreys hooker has been the form player in his position over the past couple of months, with some fine outings in the Heineken Cup propelling him the the top of the list. Rory Best and Dylan Hartley will provide stern competition, but with Matthew Rees off the boil Hibbard will expect to get plenty of game time over the Six Nations and cement his place both nationally and, possibly, for the Lions.
3: Dan Cole (England)
Completing what would be a strong front-row both in the tight and the loose is the cornerstone of the England pack, Dan Cole. Cole has thrived in the no.1 role at Leicester this season, and was in good form for his country over the autumn. It is something that is harped on about often when discussing this man, but his ability at the breakdown is crucial to his selection. He may not be as strong a ball-carrier as some of his competitors, but his ability to get over the ball and challenge for it on the floor is akin to that of a back-row forward. A newly fit again Adam Jones will provide stiff competition.
4: Joe Launchbury (England)
Stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s to Lions test starter would be one of the best sporting stories ever, and after the autumn Launchbury had, it is a distinct possibility. A powerful ball carrier, the Wasps lock also has an impressive turn of pace that would compliment an already mobile pack.
5: Geoff Parling (England)
Parling has quickly installed himself as one of England’s most consistent and important players. His partnership with the inexperienced Tom Youngs over the autumn showed what a composed figure he is, shepherding a man with a reputation for dodgy line-out throws to some excellent stats over the series. He showed against South Africa that he can be a handful with ball in hand, too.
6: Sean O’Brien (Ireland)
Despite usually starting at 7, O’Brien is just as capable of playing on the other side of the back-row. In fact, his style of play arguably suits this position more. With an out-and-out 7 also in the team, O’Brien would be freed up to play a game more oriented around ball-carrying, which is the strongest part of his repertoire anyway.
7: Justin Tipuric (Wales)
Another controversial one, given that he has been left on the bench by the Wales management for their opening game against Ireland. What exactly he has to do to get a start for his country seems to be becoming one of life’s great unanswerable questions. Anyone who saw his masterclass against Leicester in the Heineken Cup will know that he is by far the best player in his position in Wales at the moment. Rob Howley must have been absent that day.
8: Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
The newly-appointed Ireland captain seems to be in a straight shoot-out with Wales’ Toby Faletau for the no.8 shirt, with England and Scotland’s offerings either too inexperienced or not performing well enough. Heaslip has been in marvellous form since being handed the national captaincy, and if he leads Ireland through a strong Six Nations he could well be in with a shout for the Lions armband, too.
So there you have it. 6 Welshman (surprising given their recent performances), 5 Irishmen and 4 Englishmen. Not even a token Scot, and this from a Scotsman himself. Of course a couple of those are unlikely to start, but on recent form they deserve their spots. As always, let us know what you think below.