My personal choices for the Lions are definitely more based in fantasy than reality and with one eye on the future of British and Irish rugby. Warren Gatland will have no such considerations though; he will be solely focused on cementing his place in history as the first Lions coach to win a series since Ian McGeechan beat the World Champion Springboks in 1997. Gatland is normally a very cagey customer when it comes to talking to the press and giving away any clues about his sections or tactics and unless he slightly tweaks the game plan he’s adopted with Wales in their last 7 meetings he faces an uphill struggle as Wales have kicked the ball to a Wallaby side who are eminently more comfortable in possession of the ball than they are defending. Recent history tells us that Gatland favours a big back line and a pack that will be mobile enough to compete at the breakdown and not just at set pieces, I expect he’ll want a strong Welsh presence in the Test team, but as countless pundits have stated a balanced XV is as important as picking the best players in each position and as good as Wales were in their last Test against England they have traditionally struggled against Southern Hemisphere opponents that England regularly beat.
15. Leigh Halfpenny. He is Gatland’s trusted goal kicker and very solid defensively.
14. Alex Cuthbert. Not the strongest defensively, but he created 9 turnovers in the 6 Nations and his finishing expertise essentially won Gatland a Grand Slam in 2012. His try in Brisbane last year was 1 of few highlights for Wales.
13. Jonathan Davies. Gatland has been quotes as saying that his physicality at rucks is crucial out wide and he made 16 tackles and affected 3 turnovers in the 6 Nations.
12. Brad Barritt. Now this is where it gets tricky, I’m sure Gatland would love Manu Tuilagi or Jamie Roberts at 12, but Barritt leads (Lions coach Andy Farrell’s) England’s defence and as a converted 10 his ability to release the outside backs could be crucial.
11. Tim Visser. This one’s also tough to predict, George North is seriously good form and Sean Maitland, Simon Zebo, or even Manu Tuilagi and Max Evans who’s in great form in France could be in with outside shots, but at 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing in at over 17 stone Visser is tough to defend, as his 6 tries in 10 Tests show.
10. Owen Farrell. Gatland loves 10’s who can kick cleverly and control a game but also who can tackle any stray back rowers who might wander into the 10 channel and with his promise not to pick any players who will be embroiled in the Top 14 playoffs “Faz” is the closest thing to Jonny Wilkinson.
9. Mike Phillips. His physicality, service and kicking game put him head and shoulders above the other options available, but Greg Laidlaw’s footballing skills and vision could offer an interesting alternative.
8. Toby Faletau. On the hard ground Faletau will be in his element and in the last month he’s been in sensational form, not just for Wales but even behind a very poor Dragons pack.
7. Sam Warburton. Gatland likes the old dependable and even when Warburton looked seriously out of form he and his Welsh coaches stuck by their old skipper. Warburton’s Welsh colleague Justin Tipuric will be pressing him hard for the start though and every time I see Steffon Armitage play I find almost incomprehensible that he doesn’t play International rugby, if Toulon miss the Top 14 final he could be the joker in the pack so to speak.
6. Tom Croft. This one is a very close call, James Haskell’s experience of Super rugby and his immense physicality will be appealing to Gatland but Croft’s pace combined with his ability at line outs and the restart could be decisive. If Ryan Jones and Dan Lydiate can prove their fitness in time they’ll both be challenging for a starting spot and Sean O’Brien or Chris Robshaw would offer different skills in the 6 shirt, so Gatland’s really spoilt for choice.
5. Geoff Parling. He would be the brains at line out time and his ball carrying ability coupled with the street smarts he’s learned at Leicester will definitely appeal to Gatland and the forward’s coach Graham Rowntree.
4. Paul O’Connell. This is another tough pick, Jim Hamilton played fantastically well during the 6 Nations, Ian Evans never puts wrong in a Wales shirt and if Clermont miss out on the Top 14 final Nathan Hines is in with a big shout of returning to Australia to leave his mark, but experience will be key for Gatland and Rowntree in the tight 5.
3. Adam Jones. Along with Halfpenny he is probably the only player’s who’s guaranteed to be playing in Suncorp, the best tight head in the Northern Hemisphere and the Lions saviour 4 years ago in South Africa.
2. Dylan Hartley. This is admittedly a bit of a punt, but why wouldn’t one chippy ex- Kiwi hooker select a fellow chippy hooker from New Zealand to take on the Wallabies on their own patch? His form has dipped of late, but Gatland’s not known as a Richard Hibbard fan and for my money he was the stand out hooker in the 6 Nations and not just for his abundance of hair.
1. Cian Healy. If Toulon make the Top 14 Final Gatland could be without 2 potential Lions in the shape of Gethin Jenkins and Andrew Sheridan and with England’s first choice number 1 Alex Corbisiero struggling to regain full match fitness in 6 the Lions could be looking to players who aren’t guaranteed a start for their respective countries.