Lions 2013: Large Wales contingent set for Australia

 

It was billed as a "final trial" for Lions selection, and Saturday's Six Nations decider in Cardiff looks set to have a major impact on the make-up of the British & Irish Lions squad heading to Australia.

The manner and margin of Wales' record victory over England was so convincing, it is not only likely to determine the numbers of players from both countries in the party, but also the tour captain.

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BBC Sport has monitored the form of the Lions contenders right throughout the international season, from before the autumn Tests through to the conclusion of the Six Nations.

There remain some big club matches to come, with quarter-finals in both European tournaments in early April giving some English and Irish players a final chance to impress, before head coach Warren Gatland names his party on 30 April.

But the latest preferences of our pundits - ex-England centre Jeremy Guscott, former Ireland hooker Keith Wood, ex-Scotland scrum-half Andy Nicol and Wales fly-half legend Jonathan Davies - lend credence to the belief that Wales will have the biggest contingent in the squad, and the Test team.

Nicol's selection has seven Welsh players, Guscott and Wood both have nine and Davies a dozen. On current form it would be a surprise if any of the 15 who started the demolition of England, and possibly one or two of the Welsh replacements, didn't head down under.

Jeremy Guscott's team: L Halfpenny (Wal), R Kearney (Ire), B O'Driscoll (Ire), J Roberts (Wal), G North (Wal); J Sexton (Ire), M Phillips (Wal); C Healy (Ire), R Hibbard (Wal), A Jones (Wal), J Launchbury (Eng), AW Jones (Wal), C Robshaw (Eng), J Tipuric (Wal), T Faletau (Wal).

Keith Wood's team: L Halfpenny (Wal), S Hogg (Sco), B O Driscoll (Ire) J Roberts (Wal), G North (Wal); J Sexton (Ire), B Youngs (Eng); G Jenkins (Wal), K Owens (Wal), A Jones (Wal), J Launchbury (Eng), AW Jones (Wal), S Warburton (Wal), J Tipuric (Wal), S O'Brien (Ire).

Andy Nicol's team: S Hogg (Sco), A Cuthbert (Wal), B O'Driscoll (Ire), M Tuilagi (Eng), G North (Wal); J Sexton (Ire), B Youngs (Eng); G Jenkins (Wal), R Best (Ire), A Jones (Wal), J Launchbury (Eng), AW Jones (Wal), T Wood (Eng), S Warburton (Wal), T Faletau (Wal).

Jonathan Davies's team: L Halfpenny (Wal), A Cuthbert (Wal), J Davies (Wal), B O'Driscoll (Ire), G North (Wal); O Farrell (Eng), M Phillips (Wal); G Jenkins (Wal), R Hibbard (Wal), A Jones (Wal), AW Jones (Wal), G Parling (Eng), S Warburton (Wal), J Tipuric (Wal), T Faletau (Wal)

Interestingly, many of the names now restored to our pundits' line-ups - Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton - were among those favoured before the start of the Test season.

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Some may have slipped out of favour at times, but those mentioned appear to have timed their runs to perfection with strong finishes to the Six Nations, with the exception of Halfpenny who has been superb throughout.

Jenkins looks set for a third tour of Lions duty and will challenge Ireland's Cian Healy for the loose-head jersey, with Toulon-based Andrew Sheridan a possible wildcard. Adam Jones has surely made the Test tight-head spot his own, with England's Dan Cole losing more ground after his display in Cardiff.

Alun Wyn Jones - "one of the world's greatest second-row players" according to Davies - and Warburton put in commanding displays for the second week running, while Phillips showed what a powerful presence he is behind a dominant pack.

Roberts, a muted presence until now, also staked a late claim to revive his 2009 partnership with Brian O'Driscoll by snuffing out the threat of a likely Lions team-mate in Manu Tuilagi. Jonathan Davies and England's Brad Barritt are probably competing for the other centre spot.

The other Lions movers in the Welsh side are hooker Richard Hibbard, who has added beef to a dominant scrum and defence, fly-half Dan Biggar, whose late drop-goal capped a superb outing against England, and flanker Justin Tipuric, who underlined his stunning potential with a man-of-the-match display.

Interestingly, Wood also believes replacement Wales hooker Ken Owens, who made a big impact each time he entered the fray, could also make the cut, with Ireland's Rory Best and England's Tom Youngs others favoured to make the trip.

Tipuric's pace, creative impulses and clever hands had many a seasoned observer drooling, including former Ospreys team-mate Shane Williams.

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"He could have the number 10, 12, 13 or 14 on his back," said two-time Lion WIlliams. "Justin is such a fantastic talent, he could play in the backline for Wales."

If Gatland is minded to take both Wales' open-side flankers Warburton and Tipuric - "on the hard grounds of Australia, you could play them together out there," reasoned former England and Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward - where does that leave the likes of England captain Chris Robshaw and Ireland's Sean O'Brien?

Both could equally play at blind-side, or even number eight - they were the leading ball-carriers for their countries, after all - and it may well be that all four players travel.

But that would put the squeeze on other possible options at six - England duo Tom Wood and Tom Croft for example - while last year's Player of the Six Nations Dan Lydiate could be a late addition to an already congested equation if he makes a successful comeback over the next month.

Toby Faletau appears to have one number eight spot nailed down, but will the proven class of Jamie Heaslip be given a second Lions tour after a mixed campaign for Ireland?

If Gatland still has difficult choices around the balance of his final party, perhaps the biggest one concerns his choice of captain.

At 17:00 GMT on Saturday, Robshaw was still the bookies' favourite.

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But after events in Cardiff, Warburton - the early front-runner - is now the marginal favourite again, even though it appears he turned down the Wales captaincy against England to concentrate on his own game.

That may have proved a wise move. Not only has he surely sealed his place on the plane, but made it more likely he will be in the Test side, thus enhancing his captaincy claims in the process.

"I feel sorry for Robshaw, who has done an outstanding job for England," said Woodward. "But you have to pick as captain someone who is 100% in your Test team. I think Robshaw will go to Australia but the captaincy of the Lions will now go to someone in a Welsh shirt and deservedly so."

If so, the identity of that Welshman has already provoked some debate, with lock Alun Wyn Jones and prop Jenkins, who led Wales against England, also thrust into the equation.

O'Driscoll remains the other most plausible alternative, although even some of those who know him doubt if he will be asked to do the job a second time.

"I think 100% he will be selected," said his former Ireland team-mate Wood. "He has the quality and class, not just in the past but now. But to lead as captain, I am not so sure.

"He has a lot of miles on the clock but he will be one of the leaders without a shadow of a doubt, and whoever is captain, he will be someone he can rely on."