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Lions Watch - Pundits' verdict

BBC Pundits' selections

Before the RBS Six Nations Championship started seven weeks ago, we asked four of the BBC's analysts to select their British & Irish Lions team ahead of this summer's tour of South Africa.

Former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies, ex-England centre Jeremy Guscott, former Scotland scrum-half Andy Nicol and ex-Ireland hooker Keith Wood all told us who they would like to see lining up in a red shirt for the first Test against the Springboks on 20 June.

Opportunities at club level still remain - this weekend's EDF Energy Cup semi-finals, and the Heineken Cup quarter-finals on 11/12 April, for example - for players to stake claims before Lions head coach Ian McGeechan finalises his squad.

It won't work if they try to outmuscle the Springboks, so I would pick pace in the back row and have both Wallace and Williams in there

Jonathan Davies

But how much has the evidence of the Six Nations, the main shop window for Lions selection, changed the make-up of the likely Test team?

Quite a bit, it would seem. Guscott's team shows five changes (shown in bold in the above graphic) to the one he picked before, Davies' six, while the selections of Nicol and Wood both show seven changes.

There is almost unanimous agreement over a back three of Wales full-back Lee Byrne, Ireland's Tommy Bowe on the right wing, and Wales' record try-scorer Shane Williams on the left flank.

Guscott, who said during the autumn that Byrne was the "best player in the world", is sticking by the Welshman.

"His defence is as good as any full-back and in the High Veldt of South Africa, his 60m kicks that we see here will turn into 80m kicks," said Guscott.

Brian O'Driscoll
O'Driscoll captained Ireland's Grand Slam winning side this season

Wood, who opts for England's rising star Delon Armitage at full-back, is the only dissenting voice.

"I think (Ireland's) Rob Kearney will go on the tour as well and it will depend on how they perform when they get there," he said.

"Byrne has played unbelievably well but has picked up a few injuries and on South Africa's hard grounds, that might be a problem."

Unsurprisingly, Ireland's Grand Slam-winning captain Brian O'Driscoll is the unanimous choice at outside centre.

Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips and loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins also win the approval of all four pundits, who also agree that a second-row partnership of Ireland's Paul O'Connell and Wales' Alun Wyn Jones would serve the Lions best.

Elsewhere, there is disagreement over half the places in the side, especially inside centre, where Welsh trio Gavin Henson, Jamie Roberts and Tom Shanklin, plus Ireland's Gordon D'Arcy, are all offered as potential partners for O'Driscoll.

Guscott believes Henson, who only started Wales' last two Six Nations matches against Italy and Ireland, can become the best inside centre in the world, under the guidance of McGeechan and his fellow Lions coaches Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley.

606: DEBATE
Jonny Wilkinson
EnglandRWC03

Fly-half

is also a contentious area.

While Wales' Stephen Jones and Ireland's Ronan O'Gara are the leading contenders, Guscott and Davies both believe Jonny Wilkinson, sidelined since October with a dislocated knee, could yet earn a third Lions tour of duty if he makes a successful comeback with Newcastle over the next month.

"I would say Stephen Jones is favourite at the moment," says Davies. "But if Jonny plays well, he will go on the tour and then it will be interesting to see what happens."

In the front row, Ireland's Jerry Flannery and Scotland's Ross Ford both get two votes apiece at hooker alongside loose-head Jenkins, while another Scot, Euan Murray, is favourite to start at tight-head prop, with only Davies differing.

"I still think (England's) Phil Vickery might get in, just because 'Geech' [McGeechan] knows him so well (as his Wasps director of rugby)," Davies reasons.

With the second row locked up by O'Connell and Jones, that just leaves the back row.

It is not about who is best now, but about how they blend in a hostile environment once they get out there

Keith Wood

Ireland's Jamie Heaslip (two votes) and Wales' Andy Powell appear to be front-runners for the number eight jersey, though Wood believes Irishman Denis Leamy, who saw limited Six Nations action, "could end up at number eight".

At blind-side flanker, England duo Tom Croft and James Haskell have their supporters, but both Wood and Davies believe picking Ireland's David Wallace and Wales veteran Martyn Williams, both open-sides, together could be the way to neuter South Africa.

"It won't work if they try to outmuscle the Springboks, so I would pick pace in the back row and have both Wallace and Williams in there," Davies explained.

And who should lead this pride of Lions into Springbok country?

Despite O'Driscoll leading Ireland to the Grand Slam, his team-mate Paul O'Connell appears to be the favourite.

Ireland talisman Paul O'Connell
O'Connell has been in inspired form for Ireland during the Six Nations

"I would go for O'Connell because he is the only guy who is guaranteed his place," Davies said.

Wood concurs. "I would give Brian a break. We don't want memories of what happened to him in the first minute of the first Test on the last tour dragged up again all the time."

That grisly moment, when O'Driscoll was spear-tackled out of the New Zealand tour, was the latest evidence that on Lions tours, the best-laid plans can come undone at a moment's notice.

What we might think should be the Lions Test XV now is unlikely to be the side that takes to the field in Durban for the first Test.

"That is the great thing about the Lions," Wood added. "It is not about who is best now, but about how they blend in a hostile environment once they get out there."

You can also have a go at choosing your own team to take on the Springboks by following this link to our Lions squad selector.



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see also
Ospreys suffer Byrne Euro blow
22 Mar 09 |  Ospreys
Lions Watch - Donncha O'Callaghan
22 Mar 09 |  Rugby Union
Lions Watch - Tom Shanklin
01 Mar 09 |  Rugby Union
Lions Watch - Gavin Henson
15 Mar 09 |  Rugby Union
Lions watch - Jamie Heaslip
08 Feb 09 |  Rugby Union
Lions Watch - Ryan Jones
15 Feb 09 |  Rugby Union
Lions Watch
06 Feb 09 |  Rugby Union
Lions abandon extended squad plan
15 Jan 09 |  Rugby Union
New Zealand 21-3 Lions
25 Jun 05 |  Internationals
Lions squad selector
07 Nov 08 |  Rugby Union
2009 Lions: Squad & results
09 Jul 09 |  Rugby Union
History of the Lions
02 May 08 |  Rugby Union


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