The start to the domestic season has been exhilarating, so you could be forgiven if you had forgotten about the small matter of next year’s Lions tour – we haven’t though, so to get you all back in the mood, here is our team taking into account the first few weeks of action.
1: Gethin Jenkins
There’s a lot of controversy flying around at the moment about whether or not French players will be available for the beginning of the tour, but regardless of how that situation resolves itself you can’t imagine Jenkins not being there in Australia. He has been streets ahead of most other looseheads in the hemisphere for a long time.
2: Dylan Hartley
The gnarly hooker has been leading by example for Northampton Saints. Often criticised for his temperament, Hartley has been channelling his aggression in all the right ways and causing destruction all over the park. A recent eye injury could open the door for a young wildcard over the Autumn internationals, but if Hartley manages to maintain his current form then he will be difficult to overlook.
3: Dan Cole
The Leicester tight head has made a storming start to the season. Strong as always in the scrum, what has been particularly eye-catching about his performances has been his work in the loose, be it ball-carrying, tackling, or the nitty-gritty stuff on the floor. Along with Jenkins the Lions would have a dynamic combination of props, which is always likely to be key against the Aussies.
4: Jim Hamilton
Most of the focus recently has been on another Scottish lock plying his trade in the Premiership, but while Richie Gray seems to be taking time to find his feet at Sale, big Jim Hamilton has relished his role as captain of a young Gloucester team. A shoo-in for a Scotland spot in the Autumn internationals, he is the form second row in the Aviva Premiership thus far.
5: Alun Wyn Jones
Another front-five forward offering valuable leadership skills. Jones had the better of Lions rival Donncha O’Callaghan in the Ospreys’ 30-15 victory over Leinster last weekend and the second row has been demonstrating his impeccable line-out skills for the Welsh side.
6: Stephen Ferris
One of the most talented blindsides in world rugby, Stephen Ferris is an all-round wrecking ball. The Irishman recently made his 100th appearance for Ulster in their 20-19 victory over Munster. Gatland will have to keep a close eye on Ferris’ fitness; with Sam Warburton nailed on at seven, ongoing injury problems could see Chris Robshaw sneak in at six.
7: Sam Warburton (c)
One of the first names on most people’s team sheets. If he is fit, he will play, no questions asked. He has proven himself on the international stage as not only a world class openside, but also a leader of men, as he has guided a young Wales squad through a phase of great transition to become a team genuinely capable of mixing it with the best. With Gatland at the helm, it is hard to fathom anyone else taking the capataincy or the no. 7 shirt.
8: Toby Faletau
The young number eight has made his name with some barnstorming performances for Wales and the Dragons alike. Faletau’s tackling and turnover work has been earning high praise from Dragons’ coach Darren Edwards, combine these with a Colin Jarvis ‘fro and Faletau is an ideal candidate for the job.
9: Danny Care
Scrum half will be a hotly-contested position among the Lions but, based on current form, Danny Care has the edge. Care has been one of the standout performers in a marauding Harlequins side, demonstrating his burning pace off the mark, strong distribution and a lethally sharp eye for a hole. Ben Youngs will be on Care’s tail when he comes back from injury, while Mike Phillips will be keen for a look in, too.
10: Jonny Wilkinson
A controversial choice at 10, but Wilkinson is a genuine match-winner. If Gatland wants a cool and experienced head then the former-England fly-half is his man. Wilkinson has been orchestrating Toulon to some fine form in the French Top 14, and Gatland has not ruled out his selection.
11: Tommy Bowe
Wing will be another hotly contested spot, but Tommy Bowe is bound to be in the mix come selection time. He returned to Ulster colours last weekend with a bang, bagging a brace and reminding everyone that he is a world-class finisher. Gatland will have an incredibly tough time picking the wingers for his squad, never mind for the starting XV.
12: Jamie Roberts
Roberts makes the team almost by default, due to a glaring lack of quality across the nations in the inside centre position. That is not to say that he doesn’t deserve the spot – we all know how destructive he can be, and he has proven himself before on this stage. Should he get injured, however, there will be an interesting decision to be made.
13: Manu Tuilagi
Youth could be a telling factor in Tuilagi’s inclusion ahead of the Irish maestro, Brian O’Driscoll. Manu is one of the most devastating runners in world rugby and could cause havoc if the Australian defence is not at its best. Some doubts over Tuilagi’s handling skills could open a door for Jonathan Davies, but Tuilagi is still the most positive selection at 13.
14: George North
The Australian defence has struggled to keep a grasp on the George North in the past and with the youngster’s constant improvement, expect to see nothing less this summer. Tim Visser’s fine form will provide some competition, but North is currently Britain and Ireland’s number one winger.
15: Rob Kearney
The full-back position is likely to be a direct head-to-head between Kearney and his Welsh opposite number Halfpenny. Both are quality players, strong under the high ball and quick in open space. Almost an impossible selection to make, Kearney makes our team by virtue of offering slightly more counter-attacking potential, as well as a booming left boot.
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images