For just 10 minutes, you had the chance to be Warren Gatland. Do you Brian O’Driscoll one last hurrah? Will Jamie Heaslip’s experience make up for his inconsistency? Will Richie Gray be allowed to take enough conditioner with him on the flight? With all these things weighing up your mind, we asked you to pick a 15-man side to take on Australia in the First Test on June 22 in Brisbane.
Having received over 300 responses, we have our readers’ British and Irish Lions XV. I also sat down with our three senior rugby correspondents, Hugo Porter, Nathaniel Breakwell, and Richard Browne, to put together our own team to take on Australia.
People’s XV: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales); Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), George North (Wales); Jonny Sexton (Ireland), Mike Phillips (Wales); Cian Healy (Ireland), Rory Best (Ireland), Adam Jones (Wales), Richie Gray (Scotland), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Dan Lydiate (Wales), Sam Warburton (Wales), Toby Faletau (Wales).
Replacements: Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Dan Cole (England), Geoff Parling (England), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Greg Laidlaw (Scotland), Owen Farrell (England), Tommy Bowe (Ireland).
In a side with a distinctly Welsh flavour (there are 10 in the starting line-up), Brian O’Driscoll and Sam Warburton would probably be left to fight it out for the captaincy, whilst Ian McGeechan has already lent the Welshman his support. The closest position was at loose-head prop, where Healy and Jenkins went vote-for-vote all the way through, and the clearest cut selection, unsurprisingly, was Leigh Halfpenny, who amassed nearly 80% of the votes for fullback. There was some support before the Six Nations to play him at 14, but his class under the high ball and positional excellence over the championship showed him to be possibly the greatest 15 in world rugby at the moment.
Comfortably the first name on the teamsheet, and a unanimous choice by the panel. He went to South Africa in ’09, but played just one tour match and had to withdraw due to the recurrence of a thigh injury. He is excellent under the high ball, thrillingly quick, and a very solid option with the boot.
Another pretty simple choice, although Richard’s Irish bias got to him a little as he tried to advocate Craig Gilroy, for sheer excitement. Cuthbert however is the obvious choice, and his prolific try-scoring ability, even in what was a losing Welsh team, cannot be under estimated. Standing at 6 foot 6 in his socks will also stand him in good stead defensively Down Under.
For us, youth and raw power triumphed over artistry and experience. We condemned Brian O’Driscoll to end his international career with a defeat in Rome. Tuilagi has displayed his ample ability this year, although I personally plumped for dark horse Jonathan Davies, and his line-breaking and big-hitting will fit in very well on a Lions tour of Australia. He is also able to play 11, 12, or 13, which makes him a very useful amenity on a long hard tour.
Unanimously selected by the panel, the public, my dog who stumbled across my keyboard – at 12, no-one else compares in the Home Nations. Brad Barritt is emerging into a decent player, but he doesn’t hold a candle to the multi-talented, square-headed genius. He was named 2009 Lions Player of the Series, despite only playing 2 of the 3 Tests, and never seems to waver. When fully fit, he is a truly terrifying prospect in a midfield, which filled with himself and Tuilagi, will be one of the hardest-hitting ever. (It should be noted that Hugo Porter wanted to play BO’D here – no room for sympathy on a rugby tour I’m afraid…)
When North made his debut against South Africa at the tender age of 18 and scored 2 tries against the reining world champions, I don’t think there was a rugby fan in the world who didn’t lean over to his couch-mate and say knowingly “he’ll play for the Lions one day”. I know I did. Whoever though it would be only two years later? With 12 international tries to his name already, and a huge frame, only a fit Tommy Bowe really comes close to North, and who knows when that’s going to happen again…
FLY-HALF: Jonny Sexton
With no disrespect to Sexton, he takes this position by default really, due to the lack of any other challengers. Biggar and Farrell are the only other two you might really consider, and neither has the experience or entirely proven ability. A man who you might see on the plane, although it wouldn’t be a very progressive choice, would be the hugely experience Toby Flood. However, we’ve gone with Sexton, who is a solid kicker, with a good tactical brain, and 3 Heineken Cup winners medals hanging round his neck. If he’s fit, he flies on The Saint‘s plane. Don’t forget Dan Biggar though. If he sneaks in, he might make a difference alongside Phillips.
SCRUM-HALF: Mike Phillips
One of the biggest scrum-halves in world rugby, Phillips seems a reasonable easy choice for us. Ben Youngs is the only scrum-half who really comes close in terms of sniping and distribution, but Phillips defensive abilities, combined with the fact that he has Lions experience behind leaves him comfortably out in front. Conor Murray would have a greater chemistry with Sexton, but despite some improving dramatically throughout the Six Nations, he’s not quite there. Laidlaw might also consider himself unlucky not to be thought of more highly by the panel.
LOOSE-HEAD PROP: Gethin Jenkins
Quite simple again, and another unanimously-selected Welshman: 98 caps for his country, two tours with the Lions, can play either side of the scrum, and part of the front row that destroyed English Grand Slam hopes. Cian Healy probably wishes he’d been born in a different era, although had he not stamped on Dan Cole’s head he might have had a better opportunity to showcase his talents this year.
More so than at fly-half, the paucity of quality at hooker is scary. Best, with the retirement of Jerry Flannery, is a more than competent hooker, but looking around him, who is his competition? Ross Ford has played on a Lions tour before, but no-one is sure how, Tom Youngs has only played there for about a year, and Richard Hibbard is frighteningly streaky. That is a tad unfair to Hibbard, who walks onto our bench, and is in excellent form, but it’s very difficult to tell when he’s going to stay in form. Best though carries well, throws well, and scrummages well, so wins our trust.
TIGHT-HEAD PROP: Dan Cole
This was probably our toughest choice, between Cole and Adam Jones. In the end, Cole took it on countback (Richard didn’t even have Jones on the bench) but it was mighty close. The Englishman is vicious at the breakdown, and more importantly, a fantastic scrummager: anyone who watched him almost singlehandedly destroy Australia in 2010 will agree. Jones too is terrific in the scrum, but his age and lack of fitness worked against him here, despite having toured in 2009.
SECOND ROW: Geoff Parling and Richie Gray
Parling was a shoo-in as far as we were concerned, especially for his talents at the line-out. Before his injury, Gray did not look as good as he has in carrying ball, but still secured plenty of lineout ball for Scotland, and the firmer surfaces in Australia should suit his rampaging style. Alun Wyn Jones came closest, but these two offered so much as a pairing.
BLINDSIDE FLANKER: Chris Robshaw (captain)
The back row is probably the Lions strongest position. Wales alone have five class players in the position, England have 3 more, and there are a couple in Ireland and Scotland too. We’ve split them up. Robshaw has emerged as an excellent player at six or seven, and his handling skills, as demonstrated by his cover positioning for England, are second to few. We selected him as captain on the grounds that he was made captain of a new group of disparate players at England level, why shouldn’t he do it again? Croft, Warburton or Lydiate, or even Steven Ferris could all have pipped him to this spot as well.
OPENSIDE FLANKER: Justin Tipuric
Tipuric has come from nowhere to be one of the best flankers in European rugby. With just 15 caps to his name, his excellent performances against Ireland from the bench, France starting at seven, and then as Man of the Match against England pushed him ahead of Faletau, Strokosch, Brown, and Morgan to give him the starting jersey for us. The Welsh strength in depth here though is frightening.
This was a collectively left field choice, but creates a very balanced back row. Toby Faletau has of course been excellent all Six Nations, but Heaslip, who started every Test in South Africa in ’09 has a proven track record of excellence, and also provides another leader in a young team.
REPLACEMENTS: Adam Jones (Wales), Richard Hibbard (Wales), Cian Healy (Ireland), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Sam Warburton (Wales), Ben Youngs (England), Owen Farrell (England), Stuart Hogg (Scotland).
If you don’t like who we’ve picked, or even who your fellow readers have picked, tweet us with the hashtag #LionsXV.