With the 2013 Lions tour of Australia in the books, the mind does invariably wander to the Lions’ next excursion, a trip to New Zealand in 2017. The yet to be named head coach, his personal game plan, and the emergence of young talent throughout the next four years will all have a great bearing on who lines up to face the first Haka of the series in just under four years time, but here’s some extremely early speculation on who those 15 men may just be…
1. Alex Corbisiero – England
It would take a brave man to bet against Corbisiero, Cian Healy and Mako Vunipola being the three loosehead props on the plane to New Zealand, but providing he can stay relatively injury free over the intervening years, Corbisiero could well be in pole position for the starters jersey. If Vunipola’s scrummaging develops over the coming years, it could be one of the hottest contended position battles of the 2017 tour.
2. Tom Youngs – England
The Leicester Tiger should be hitting his peak in four years time, and will likely see off competition from the likes of Dylan Hartley and Richard Hibbard, the latter of whom will be 33, and possibly beginning to decline. Richardt Strauss or Sean Cronin could also be in the mix, depending on who emerges as Ireland’s long-term replacement for Rory Best, whilst youngster Luke Cowan-Dickie has a decent chance of joining them, providing he can continue his impressive development with the Exeter Chiefs.
3. Dan Cole – England
As much as we would all like to see Adam Jones once more destroying Southern Hemisphere scrums, the Welshman will be 36 in 2017, and almost certainly out of Lions contention. Cole, an already formidable tighthead, will be 30 at the time of the tour, and should be hitting his peak. There are not too many other potential prospects currently playing at an international level in the home nations, and the Lions could well end up replying on some young prospects to push Cole for the starting jersey.
4. Richie Gray – Scotland
Gray was unlucky to come into this year’s Lions tour on the back of a disappointing season, which was marred by both injury and poor form, and likely contributed to his lack of appearances in the first two tests. His potential however is phenomenal, and you would expect his lineout ability to improve over the next four years and reach the same kind of proficiency he has already displayed with his ball carrying. Geoff Parling could also tour, and provide cover from the bench, especially if the Lions endure the same lineout struggles they have had this year.
5. Alun Wyn Jones – Wales
Hard to leave out a victorious Lions captain, especially when he will still only be 31 in 2017. Young England and London Wasps’ star Joe Launchbury is unlucky to miss out on a starting position, but could well force his way ahead of both Gray and Jones in the next few years if he continues to impress, as could Courtney Lawes if he can become more consistent.
6. Peter O’Mahony – Ireland
The Munsterman faces stiff competition from Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Tom Croft and Tom Wood for the blindside slot, but narrowly beats them out on the potential he offers. He’s a Munster and Ireland captain in waiting, and there seems to be no weak link to his game, despite the fact he is still just 23. Arguably the most talent rich position amongst the home nations currently, this position battle could well turn out to be the fiercest of the 2017 tour.
7. Sam Warburton (C) – Wales
Much of the criticism that surrounded the announcement of Warburton as captain this year was due to the fact people considered Warburton to be out of form, and that his place in the team was not guaranteed thanks to emergence of Justin Tipuric. That being said, when both players are on form, Warburton is still the better player in my mind, and his experience of captaining the Lions this year will be vital in New Zealand. A host of young English sevens such as Will Fraser, Matt Kvesic and Sam Jones could all be in with outside shots too.
8. Stephen Ferris – Ireland
Without doubt the riskiest selection in the team, but if Ferris can upset the odds and stay fit, he could be a difference maker on the tour. If it were not for injuries, Ferris would be a veteran of two Lions tours, and would have had a very good chance of being a test starter on both of those tours. Toby Faletau is the obvious choice if Ferris cannot stay fit, although he could be pushed close by the English duo of Ben Morgan and Billy Vunipola.
9. Ben Youngs – England
Youngs may have, on reflection, been outperformed by Conor Murray on this year’s tour, but the Leicester Tiger has a more well-rounded game than Murray, and an extra four years experience could well see Youngs as the premiere scrum half in Northern Hemisphere rugby. Greig Laidlaw and Danny Care could well tour, but may struggle to challenge Youngs and Murray for the starter’s jersey.
10. Jonathan Sexton – Ireland
Without doubt the toughest decision in the team, but ultimately caution won the day, and I stuck with the tried and tested Sexton. Both Ian Madigan and Owen Farrell were extremely close to pipping Sexton to the starting spot, but given the quality of the opposition the Lions will face in New Zealand, Sexton’s experience won through. To see Madigan oust Sexton from Ireland’s fly half spot would not be overly surprising during the next four years, whilst Farrell seems to have picked up a lot from this year’s Lions tour, and could well quiet the calls of ‘Freddie Burns for England’ during this upcoming season.
11. Simon Zebo – Ireland
Zebo electrified on this year’s tour following his call up as injury cover, and you’d expect him to go from strength to strength over the next four years. Concerns over Zebo’s similarity to the other winger in this squad could see Alex Cuthbert take his place, particularly if Cuthbert’s defence improves over the coming years.
12. Manu Tuilagi – England
The centre was unlucky to not feature more in the tests this year thanks to an injury he picked up in the warm up matches, but could well make this position his own for 2017 and beyond. Jamie Roberts will still certainly be in the mix in four years time, but Tuilagi’s dynamism could well give him the edge.
13. George North – Wales
Another risky call, and one that relies on North seeing game time at 13 for his new club, Northampton. Playing expansively, although not an alien concept to the Saints, is certainly not Northampton’s ‘Plan A’, and North could see time in the centres in an effort to get him more involved in the game. In this scenario, North would have to see off competition from national compatriot Jonathan Davies, as well as the ever improving Elliot Daly.
14. Christian Wade – England
Although Wade didn’t have the impact on the tour he would have liked this year, the experience should have benefitted the winger greatly, and he could well be ready to set the world alight come 2017. As mentioned in regards to Zebo, there may be concerns over playing two wingers so similar, and the likes of Tim Visser and Marland Yarde could also come into contention.
15. Leigh Halfpenny – Wales
The Welsh full back could yet earn himself a reputation as the greatest Lion of all time. Halfpenny earned himself the ‘Man of the Series’ accolade on his second Lions tour, at the young age of 24, and should have another two tours in him if he can stay healthy. It’s hard to see anyone ousting him from a position which he has made his own, but Stuart Hogg will certainly give it a good shot.
We’re aware of just how speculative this is – but who would you like to see appearing in a Lions jersey in four years time? Who do you back to emerge as contenders?
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)