Well, the Lions have picked their team for the first test against Australia on Saturday (k.o.@11) and it’s a strong team overall with each player being the best of the squad in their respective positions.
8 of the starting team are making their debut in a Lions test but there are some experienced players there as well, with the other 7 players having starred in the 2009 series against South Africa.
The starting team comprises of 8 Welsh players, 4 Irish and 3 English. There are a further 6 English players on the bench, with Dan Lydiate of Wales and Sean Maitland of Scotland completing the test 23. Maitland is the only Scottish player selected.
British & Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Jonathan Davies, 11 George North, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Tom Croft, 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Alex Corbisiero.
Replacements: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Makovina Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Dan Lydiate, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Sean Maitland.
Jonny Sexton becomes the first Irishman to play for the Lions at out-half in a test since Ollie Campbell played in all 4 matches of the Lions series against New Zealand in 1983. Unfortunately, all 4 tests were lost by the Lions. Not a good omen!
Sexton has a chance to carve his name into rugby immortality. He’s already considered one of the top out-half’s around. A great performance in a Lions test will seal his reputation. He needs to step it up a gear to achieve that goal, though.
Brian O’Driscoll makes his 7th appearance in a Lions test and his 4th against Australia. His record in Lions tests is poor, having only won 1 out of the last 6 tests (the 1st test against Australia in 2001 where he scored one of the best tries ever seen).
O’Driscoll is playing some of the best rugby of his career and will certainly want to achieve that elusive test series victory in a Lions jersey. He’s joined in the centre by Welsh star Jonathan Davies, who takes over from the injured Jaimie Roberts.
O’Driscoll and Roberts were a powerful combination in the 2009 Lions series, let’s hope O’Driscoll and Davies will be equally as powerful. O’Driscoll is the only survivor (on either side) of the 2001 Lions series.
Jaimie Heaslip was another star of the 2009 series and he starts at no.8. It’s being a great comeback for Heaslip, who had suffered a loss of form since ’09 but has been playing very well in recent weeks.
Paul O’Connell was also a star of that ‘09 series (where he was captain) and has played some great rugby on this tour. He’s made a great comeback as well after his tour was put in jeopardy by suffering an injury earlier in the season.
Like O’Driscoll, O’Connell is also playing in his 7th Lions test (he played in all 3 games against New Zealand in 2005) and he has also only known victory once in a Lions test, the final match against South Africa 4 years ago.
Sam Warburton makes his first appearance in a Lions test and he does so as captain. There’s a lot of pressure on him to perform as many still believe that he shouldn’t have been picked as captain and shouldn’t even be playing.
It’s true to say that he hasn’t yet put in a great performance and his form was curtailed by injury earlier on the tour. It is hoped that he will rise to the occasion as he is one of the best flankers around when he’s on top form.
He’s joined by 7 fellow Welshmen in the side. Adam Jones was a star of the 2009 series and has become the best prop on this tour. Alun Wyn-Jones has fought off the competition to reunite with O’Connell in the second row.
Wyn Jones locked up with O’Connell in the first Lions test against South Africa 4 years ago. Jones didn’t have a great game then, and was dropped for the next 2 tests, but he’s in great form at the moment.
Mike Phillips starred in all 3 tests against South Africa 4 years ago and has being one of the stars of this tour. It’s unknown how well he will link with Sexton but they could become one of the great Lions half-back partnerships.
George North has recovered from injury and takes his place on the wing. North had been the stand-out performer of the tour so far and it’s hoped that injury hasn’t affected his form too much.
North is joined on the wing by Welsh colleague, Alex Cuthbert. Cuthbert has made some impressive breaks but his defence and speed have been called into question. A 3rd Welsh player completes the back three, Leigh Halfpenny.
Halfpenny has had a great tour so far and his kicking has been outstanding. He probably would be starting the tests even if Rob Kearney had been fit from the start of the tour; his kicking’s being that good.
Tom Croft was another star of the 2009 series and he beats off strong competition, from Sean O’Brien and Justin Tipuric, to claim that Lions no.6 jersey. He’s had a great tour and is an extra source of possession in the line-out.
Tom Youngs has become the best hooker of the tour getting the nod over Richard Hibbard (though Hibbard did well when he came on against the Brumbies). Rory Best, unfortunately, hasn’t done very well for himself.
Alex Corbisiero is yet another player to be picked for a Lions test after not even been in the original party (like Croft in 2009). He’s also had a great comeback, after suffering an injury earlier in the season.
Corbisiero has become the first choice loose-head, after injuries to both Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins. It’s believed that Corbisiero is better in the scrum than Mako Vunipola, who was a strong prospect for the test and is on the bench.
The bench is strong though there are 1 or 2 surprise choices. Dan Lydiate has played very well on tour but I would have picked Sean O’Brien as I think he can offer more as an impact player off the bench, though he didn’t play well against the Brumbies.
Sean Maitland has made some good runs in his appearances on tour so far but his defence has been poor. I would have picked Simon Zebo or Rob Kearney, or even Stuart Hogg, if Gatland wanted to have a Scot in the match-day squad.
All in all, it’s a strong Lions team, though there are some concerns. The Lions have looked vulnerable in the set pieces (scrums and line-outs) and at the breakdown area. There’s also some doubts about Sexton’s fitness.
Sexton has had problems with his hamstring all tour, a result of his prolonged end of season and playing in the first 4 games of this tour. An injury to him would be a great loss and a significant blow to the Lions chances.
Another cause for concern is the Lions suffering their first loss of the tour, going down 14-12 to the ACT Brumbies on Tuesday. It was a poor performance by the Lions all around and they were outclassed all over the field.
The Lions were very lacklustre, though they weren’t helped by having 4 debutants in the back-line. Their main problems were in the pack, though, with the scrum and line-out especially malfunctioning badly.
None of the starting XV did their test prospects any good (it should never be forgotten that there are 3 tests in the series and that there are still plenty of chances of being picked for the tests).
It remains to be seen how the loss has affected the tour party. Sometimes it can prove to be a wakeup call, other times depression begins to fester amongst the players and soon is affecting the entire squad.
Australia have picked a strong team to counter the Lions though they have their own worries. Australia haven’t played a test together in more then 6 months and several of their squad haven’t been playing in recent weeks to rest them for the Lions’ series.
There’s also a lack of support for coach Robbie Deans, who is not a popular figure in Australia. Part of this is due to his heritage (he’s a New Zealander) and partly to do with the fact that he has changed Australia’s playing style.
For years, Australia have been synonymous with running rugby (Campese, Ella, Roff) but in recent seasons their style has changed to a more forward orientated game. This has met with major disapproval from fans and former players.
Losing the Lions series may even result in Deans losing his job. The Lions have yet to be really tested on this tour and Austrlia may prove to be too much. I think The Lions will just scrape by, winning by a converted try. This is where the tour really kicks off!