Lions 2013: Leigh Halfpenny and Manu Tuilagi book Australia tickets
By Bryn PalmerBBC Sport
With two rounds of the Six Nations still to go, and another two months before Warren Gatland finalises his Lions squad, hope springs eternal for British and Irish players intent on spending their early summer in Australia.
But as the head coach muses over a provisional party this week, as he did at the end of the autumn Tests and before the start of the Six Nations, the 'definites' and 'probables' are becoming that bit clearer.
One or two new 'possibles' may also have hit the radar after this weekend's third round of Six Nations matches - some still greenhorns in the Test arena, some grizzled veterans.
The Scrum V Lion's Den - Jonathan Davies
Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny is surely one of perhaps a dozen or so 'definites' after a second man-of-the-match award in as many games, against Italy. The legendary JPR Williams, who should know a good full-back when he sees one, rated him "the best player on the field by some margin" in Rome, calling him an "incredible player".
Aside from one first-half kick charged down, and one of his seven attempts at goal missing when his kicking tee slipped, it was business as usual - superb under the high ball, a defensive rock (he has not missed a tackle in the Six Nation since 2011), kicking relieving punts and accumulating penalties, plus half a dozen carries from deep.
Yet if his place in the squad looks assured, there are those who feel
he may miss out on the Test number 15 jersey.
If any of Stuart Hogg, Rob Kearney or Alex Goode beat him to it, the temptation for Gatland to include Halfpenny on the right wing, where he started his Test career, must be strong.
Specialist operators on that flank have yet to make a compelling case, and the manner in which Wesley Fofana breezed past Chris Ashton on his solo rampage at Twickenham did nothing for the England winger's cause. So it was an opportune time for an energetic all-round display from Wales' Alex Cuthbert, capped with a scything finish for his try, while Ireland's Craig Gilroy also showed his finishing instincts and strong appetite for work.
Manu Tuilagi's barnstorming display against France must have ended any arguments about his place on the plane to Australia. England's major attacking threat is also likely to be one of the Lions', regardless of whether Brian O'Driscoll makes a fourth trip or not.
Six Nations highlights: England 23-13 France
The chances of the great man reviving his 2009 partnership with Jamie Roberts appear to be diminishing fast, however. A wet weather game requiring strong ball-carriers should have been tailor-made for Roberts, but his impact was restricted to spilling possession several times in contact.
The influence of England's Brad Barritt, by contrast, grows by the game. If Gatland wants a one-man barricade at 12 who can also get over the gain-line, rather than someone with a more rounded range of skills, he need look no further.
Then again, Luke Marshall's introduction to Test rugby could swiftly see him elevated to a potential 'bolter'. If the 21-year-old Irish centre's mis-timed pass after the second of his two line breaks cost a try, the footwork and acceleration which took him between Scotland's Ruaridh Jackson and Matt Scott for his first marked him out as a player of genuine talent.
No major movers and shakers here, although Gatland may have noted Owen Farrell's over-enthusiasm to engage in the physical stuff with the French at times, even if his dead-eyed goal-kicking appeared unaffected before injury intervened.
If Jonny Sexton and Farrell look favourites to travel, the third fly-half berth - if Gatland opts for one - appears wide open. Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood offer contrasting options but with Rhys Priestland injured, Biggar was an increasingly assured presence for Wales.
"Farrell and Sexton are the two clear front-runners, but Dan Biggar is settling in nicely now and if he has two big games [in the rest of the Six Nations] he has got a great chance of going with them," believes former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies.
Another strong outing from scrum-half Mike Phillips also suggested he is not about to give up on the prospect of more Lions Test caps, even if England duo Ben Youngs and Danny Care are probably favourites at this stage.
The Lions Test props from four years ago, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, both showed welcome signs of a return to form as part of a powerful Welsh scrummage, with hooker Richard Hibbard also doing his chances no harm in helping to neuter the Italian front row.
Six Nations highlights: Italy 9-26 Wales
While Jones took the plaudits for re-establishing the set-piece platform, Jenkins was far more influential around the field than of late before a productive outing ended with injury.
England's struggles with the French scrum may have undermined the chances of Dylan Hartley and Joe Marler, although Dan Cole is unlikely to encounter another loose-head presenting the same physical and technical challenges as Thomas Domingo down under.
Scotland tight-head Geoff Cross was only in the side because of Euan Murray's refusal to play on Sundays, but Murray, a Lion in 2009, might struggle to regain his place against Wales. Disruptive at the set-piece, and bullish in defence, Cross exemplified Scotland's never-say-die attitude, while his fellow prop Ryan Grant got through a dozen tackles.
The prospects of England's Joe Launchbury and Geoff Parling taking their partnership into a red jersey grow shorter by the week, with Launchbury topping England's tackle count - with 15 - against France, and Parling's energetic presence embellishing his line-out prowess.
Wales' Ian Evans enjoyed another strong outing in Rome, while Alun Wyn Jones is likely to push his case for a second tour in the remaining matches after returning as a replacement.
Six Nations highlights: Scotland 12-8 Ireland
Scotland's Richie Gray is considered a likely tourist, but alongside him, "Big Jim" Hamilton had a colossal game against Ireland and was the obvious choice as man of the match. The 6ft 8in, 19st 11lb lock burgled three line-outs in the first half when Ireland opted to kick penalties for touch and was a huge physical presence in the final quarter.
Should Gatland want to pick a heavyweight front five in Australia, and prioritise pace in the back row, someone of Hamilton's ilk and character could be utilised in the 'enforcer' role.
England captain Chris Robshaw - for whom man-of-the-match awards are becoming the norm like Halfpenny - and Tom Wood reinforced the impression that they are making it very hard for Gatland to even consider leaving them at home.
While the debate continues over whether Robshaw is a genuine open-side flanker, Wood's ability to play either of the three back-row roles will surely see him on the plane.
If he is only standing in at number eight, you would not know it from the evidence of the past two Tests. As things stand, Wales' Toby Faletau appears to be a nailed-on tourist in that position after another industrious afternoon in Rome.
Two other flankers made contrasting contributions at Murrayfield. Ireland's Sean O'Brien carried the ball 22 times in a losing cause, bringing his tally to 44 in the opening three rounds, while captain Kelly Brown's 15 tackles in Scotland's "blue-collar" victory made it 43 overall in three matches - nine more than any other player in the Championship.
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