15 Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
He has been particularly good not only on this tour but for the last two years. His goal-kicking is exemplary – as 11 from 11 last weekend amply demonstrated. The Cardiff Blues 15 is strong under the high ball and is not afraid to have a go – he’s a player I have really enjoyed watching over the last couple of seasons.
14 Sean Maitland (Scotland)
Over the course of a tour players develop and form fluctuates. Alex Cuthbert would have been in my team before they set off but a few games in and it changes. Cuthbert has not had the greatest of tours by his standards while Maitland has impressed and knows this territory well from his time in the Super 15.
13 Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
Before the tour I didn’t have O’Driscoll in the Test team but he has made his point already Down Under. He just brings that subtlety of touch and deftness of foot that can make a difference. He has lost a little bit of the old gas but the sharpness of mind remains strong and he is one of the best readers of a game around. He is still a master.
12 Jamie Roberts (Wales)
Another Welshman who has been so consistent in recent years and you know that in the big games the big man will come to the fore. He is defensive captain for Wales and will have a key role to play in the Lions defensive set-up. O’Driscoll and Roberts shone in South Africa four years ago and can be a vital pairing again.
11 George North (Wales)
Like Halfpenny, the big wing has been a joy to watch for the last two years. What impresses about the 21-year-old is how he goes looking for work – he just wants to be involved all the time. He gets in good positions, has great hands and runs good lines. It is so important he is fit.
10 Jonny Sexton (Ireland)
This is the half-back combination most people expected. Sexton has the temperament and the experience to guide a game. His experience is one clear advantage he has over Owen Farrell. He is steady, cool and calm and knows his game, and I can see him forming a good unit with Roberts and O’Driscoll outside him – an experienced, unflappable trio.
9 Mike Phillips (Wales)
Another with ample experience to bring to the shirt and he will add some aggression too. He is such a bullish ball-carrier, always sniping around the breakdown and any defence can’t relax for a second with him around. It means he can buy that all-important extra time for his No 10 to make a decision.
1 Mako Vunipola (England)
This is the classic example of a player taking the opportunity presented to him. Cian Healy would have been first choice at loose-head prop and it is devastating for him to miss out. In his absence Vunipola has taken his chance admirably. He gets through an enormous amount of work and has a rare sleight of hand for a man in his position. It is exceptional for him to be at this stage given he is only 22. His performance in the scrums will be what makes or breaks him and I know Graham Rowntree, the Lions forwards coach, rates him very highly.
2 Tom Youngs (England)
It is Youngs’ ability around the park that edges him ahead of Richard Hibbard. The Welshman is a favourite of Gatland’s but this is my XV! It will be a close call between them and it is that strong ball-carrying that shunts Youngs into my starting line-up. He is a nuisance of a player, a tough little nugget who will get among the Australians. His progress as a hooker has been remarkable – it is some achievement for him even to be out there. Remember, he has been an international hooker for only one season and a Premiership No 2 for a season and a half. And he deserves to be there and in contention for a Lions starting spot. The most important thing is that he gets the basics right, starting with throwing into the line-out.
3 Adam Jones (Wales)
Another close call with Dan Cole but the scrum is the linchpin and Jones is Mr Dependable. They are both outstanding at what they do but the Welshman with his immense experience just has the edge. Cole offers more around the park but in terms of nailing the set piece it is Jones who gets the shirt.
4 Paul O’Connell (Ireland)
Every team needs an enforcer on the pitch and that is one of the big things that O’Connell brings. This is a guy who has been about. It’s his third Lions tour, and he is a good leader. He will lay down the letter of the law, like a Martin Johnson of years gone by. He didn’t have a huge amount of rugby coming into the tour and it is so good to see him back on the pitch. His line-out ability is also key in an area that has at times been a struggle for the Lions.
5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
The line-out has stuttered in a couple of the matches but it is not down to one individual. A good line-out is always a team effort and that is where Jones comes in. Experience counts when you get to this level and Jones has to make his count against the Waratahs to earn the starting shirt ahead of Richie Gray.
6 Sean O’Brien (Ireland)
A very close call with Tom Croft and the Englishman could swing it with a stellar game against the Waratahs. But I am a big fan of O’Brien and have been impressed with him throughout the tour. An excellent ball-carrier and tireless worker who can slip easily into the blind-side role despite preferring the No 7 shirt.
7 Sam Warburton (Wales)
This is one of the closest battles in the team – Warburton against Justin Tipuric. Tipuric has had some outstanding games and will be unlucky not to play but Gatland picked Warburton as captain for a reason – not only is he a good player, he is a good leader. He does everything you would expect of a good leader. I thought he was unfortunate to be left out by Wales during the Six Nations, and some people have been too quick to criticise his performances. He is reliable, consistent – you know what you get from him. He deserves the shirt but he knows the pressure is on him to justify his place on the pitch. Because he is the individual he is, I expect him to have an outstanding series, and I expect him to be captaining the winning side.
8 Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
Heaslip has made up ground on the tour. Toby Faletau probably arrived in Australia as favourite to play at No 8 but Heaslip has been the better of the two judged on their performances in the red shirt of the Lions. He has the chance against the Waratahs to cement his position.
ESPN Classic continues its extensive Lions programming every night at 9pm. Airing Saturday night will be two Lions v South Africa test matches from the 1974 Lions Tour to South Africa. Visit espnclassic.com for details