Lions 2013: Gatland’s options grow after round one of Six Nations

 

Warren Gatland chose the Millennium Stadium rather than Twickenham on day one of the Six Nations to peruse in person the contenders for a place in his Lions squad for this summer's tour to Australia.

And while the head coach will be gratified by some aspects of what he saw in Cardiff - though dismayed, perhaps, by others - reviewing England's impressive win over Scotland may give him greater food for thought as he starts to whittle down the probables and possibles.

Six Nations: Simon Zebo's cheeky backheel sets up Ireland try

One can only imagine the mixed emotions Gatland must have felt as he surveyed the first half of Ireland's 30-22 victory over Wales.

On the one hand, here were Welsh players he has worked with closely for several years looking woefully out of sorts and shorn of confidence. On the other, there was a string of Irishmen confirming the impression that they are likely to play leading roles with the Lions down under.

Top of the bill was Brian O'Driscoll, who made an emphatic statement about his readiness for a fourth tour of duty, and a second to Australia. The class in creating Simon Zebo's opening try, the sense of timing for his own poacher's score, the leadership in Ireland's rearguard effort - his man-of-the-match stamp was all over proceedings.

It would be a surprise if he wasn't already on Gatland's short-list for the captaincy, but if he continues in this vein, that possibility will surely only grow.

His opposite number Jonathan Davies chose a bad time to have one of his worst outings in a Wales shirt, but all is not lost for the centre's hopes.

Elsewhere in the Irish ranks, the form of hooker Rory Best on his return to the side bolstered the season-long impression that he is the front-runner for the Lions Test spot.

Ireland win a thrilling encounter at the Millennium Stadium as they beat defending champions Wales 30-22 in the opening match of the 2013 Six Nations.

While his charge-down of Dan Biggar's kick and composure in keeping the ball alive caught the eye in the run-up to Cian Healy's try, his destructive choke-tackle and breakdown work also caused Wales no end of problems, allied to a strong showing in the set-pieces.

Prop Healy also justified his position as the leading candidate for the Lions loose-head spot with another industrious display of ball-carrying, topped off with a powerful finish for his try.

Healy's rise only highlighted the demise of Gethin Jenkins, a Test prop on the last two Lions tours, whose place in the Wales starting side must be under threat after another lacklustre outing.

Flanker Sean O'Brien was another to justify those endorsing his Lions prospects with a Trojan effort of 23 tackles in Ireland's cause, while also topping their ball-carrying stats with 12.

The back-row selection, given the wealth of talent available, will surely cause Gatland more head-scratching than any other area. Some seriously good players won't make it onto the plane.

After O'Brien and Wales number eight Toby Faletau, who led Wales' ball carriers (19) and tackle count (11) with a tireless effort, had stated their cases in Cardiff, half a dozen others took up the gauntlet at Twickenham.

British & Irish Lions 2013 Tests

22 June: 1st Test - Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

29 June: 2nd Test - Etihad Stadium, Melbourne

6 July: 3rd Test - ANZ Stadium, Sydney

Ben Morgan's punishing charges and Johnnie Beattie's marauding invention for Scotland on his return to the Test arena suggest it could be a four-way battle - along with Ireland's Jamie Heaslip - for the number eight spots.

While captain Kelly Brown also put in a wonderfully defiant shift on the Scotland flank, his England counterpart Chris Robshaw was further improving his Lions hopes as the home side triumphed 38-18.

Many had dismissed his chances after Gatland said he was looking for out-and-out open-side fetchers to counteract the Wallabies threat of David Pocock and Michael Hooper. But with each outing in a white shirt, Robshaw's authority seems to grow.

"His ambition, I am sure, is to be a Lions leader and open-side," said former England and Lions hooker Brian Moore. "There are questions about him but he keeps answering them. It doesn't matter if he is playing like a six if he is playing like this. And people want to follow him as well, which is important."

Sir Clive Woodward, observing events at Twickenham for the BBC, also gave his approval. "Robshaw's stock just keeps rising," he noted. "He had a fantastic game."

Six Nations: England 38-18 Scotland highlights

Likewise the momentum growing around Joe Launchbury shows no sign of abating. The 21-year-old's mobility, off-loading skills and impact at the breakdown are such that after just five England caps, he already looks like the prototype lock for the modern age.

The other vision Gatland might allow himself after watching the England game is of Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg burning up opponents on the fast grounds of Australia.

The searing break up the right touchline, brushing off fellow contender Alex Goode in the process, and the pace and skill he showed to finish Scotland's second try, were a scintillating demonstration of potential being unleashed.

While Leigh Halfpenny, whose bravery, finishing and kicking prowess again stood out for Wales, and Ireland's Rob Kearney remain the favourites, Hogg - not 21 until two days after the first Lions Test in Brisbane - provides an enticing alternative.

And then there was Owen Farrell's unerring boot, and wonderful floated pass for Geoff Parling's try. Some genuine competition for Ireland's Jonny Sexton perhaps?

These young cubs could find themselves fully fledged Lions in no time.