Jonathan Davies: Young Welsh lions must dominate in Australia 2013
Tuesday 25 October 2011
There are less than two years until the next Lions tour and, now the Rugby World Cup is over, the mind already begins to turn towards Australia 2013. Who will be there? Who won't be there as the British and Irish try to win their first series in 16 years?
Talent is emerging quicker than ever and my hunch is that the example of Wales in New Zealand will ensure coaches will be more prepared to give youth its head. But looking at the players available now, who would be the starting XV? The form of the last few months will colour the judgement and because of this the following is the Lions team of the World Cup. I make no excuses for picking 10 Welshmen. My country were the best of the Home Nations. Simple as.
No 15 Leigh Halfpenny blossomed in a role in which he has not played that much since turning pro. The kid is unflappable, rarely makes a mistake and his long-range penalties should establish him almost as a certainty.
Wings I hesitate to leave out Tommy Bowe because he is such a joy to watch with his quick feet and clever running of the angles. But if he maintains his startling rate of improvement, George North is a definite and so too to my mind is Chris Ashton. North is only 19, is obscenely powerful and seemingly has it all. Ashton, meanwhile, is a supreme finisher. How did he manage to finish top try scorer in the tournament in that England team?
Centres Brian O'Driscoll is still right up there and I wouldn't be surprised if he summons himself to give it one last hurrah on the Lions tour. Anywhere near his best and he would be difficult to leave out, particularly with his experience. But Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi stood out in New Zealand. What a handful they would be together. James Hook is a great footballer, but he was woefully out of sorts.
Half-backs Rhys Priestland and Michael Phillips. Nobody else came close to these two. I honestly believe Wales would have been in the final if Priestland had remained fit, while Phillips was the best No 9 in the entire tournament. Maybe Ben Youngs or Danny Care or Mike Blair will improve enough to challenge him, but I doubt it. Johnny Sexton and Toby Flood are the contenders for the fly-half jersey, but Priestland is going to get even better.
Front row Again it's a Welsh duo. Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins are world-class performers and if Matthew Rees is fit and firing they could easily form a Dragonhood front three again, as they did in South Africa. Saying that, Cian Healy, the loosehead, was exceptional in Ireland's win against Australia and the English props always hold their own. Rory Best was the pick of the Home Nations hookers in the World Cup, but I also like Scotland's Ross Ford.
Second row Paul O'Connell still has that aura, as the Wallabies discovered. But will he be around in 2013? There are some big locks coming through, most obviously Richie Gray and Courtney Lawes. Alun-Wyn Jones performed well for Wales, although he was outshone by Luke Charteris, who is one of the most improved players in world rugby.
Back row Sam Warburton will be the Lions captain. Not only are there few other candidates, but he seems born to the role and is by far the best openside. He would have learnt so much in New Zealand, not least how careful a player must be with certain referees. Despite playing openside in New Zealand, Sean O'Brien takes my vote at blindside, just nudging out Dan Lydiate. Toby Faletau was supreme at No 8.
The coach This is the hardest question of the lot and, I'm sorry, I can't even offer a solid suggestion. Maybe Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards will fancy the challenge again, or maybe it's Declan Kidney's turn, or Andy Robinson. Who knows who will be in charge of England by then, but his challenge will be straightforward: pick a side, set a gameplan, stop the shambles. The Lions will be all the stronger for a strong England.
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