Peter Jackson: Lions’ roar takes on a different sound now

Danny CareA Lions Test team selected at the end of the World Cup last October would have been a straightforward exercise – Wales and The Rest. How many of the former and how few of the latter would have been a matter of conjecture with a strong case for such a hefty Welsh majority as to leave room for a few from Ireland and one from England.  The Lions, after all, don’t play in red for nothing.
A Test team chosen at the end of the World Cup would have looked roughly like this:
15 Rob Kearney (Ireland)
14 Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
13 Jonathan Davies (Wales)
12 Jamie Roberts (Wales)
11 George North (Wales)
10 Rhys Priestland (Wales)
9 Mike Phillips (Wales)
1 Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
2 Rory Best (Ireland)
3 Adam Jones (Wales)
4 Paul O’Connell (Ireland)
5 Luke Charteris (Wales)
6 Tom Croft (England)
7 Sam Warburton (Wales)
8 Toby Faletau (Wales)
Eight months on, the picture looks very different.  There have been so many twists and turns of the kaleidoscope that if the Lions were playing in Australia for the series this weekend instead of this time next year, the chosen ones would contain fewer Welsh and more of the rest.
The Grand Slam duly consolidated Welsh supremacy in the dens of the Northern Hemisphere Lions and then came the three-match series in Australia.    In losing all three, some of those untouchable as Test Lions the previous autumn have lost ground.
Performances by their opposite numbers elsewhere have raised questions which will already have struck the putative head coach, Warren Gatland.  The same questions will still be asked when the autumn Tests come round in November.
Is Cian Healy now a more formidable loosehead prop than the old warhorse Gethin Jenkins?
And what of Adam Jones on the other side of the scrum?  Peerless among tightheads during the Welsh adventure in New Zealand, he now finds his position threatened by England’s Dan Cole and by Mike Ross, the former Harlequin without whom the Irish scrum imploded at Twickenham during the Six Nations.
How far has Toby Faletau fallen from his undisputed perch as the Lions prospective No. 8 under pressure from a revitalised Jamie Heaslip and England’s newest Kiwi, Thomas ‘The Tank Engine’ Waldrom?
There can be no doubt that Jonny Sexton has overtaken Rhys Priestland as the No1 No10.   The Welshman, imperious at the World Cup as Wales’ playmaker-in-chief, will start next season knowing there is some catching up to be done after a less than convincing series against the Wallabies.
Mike Phillips, out on his own a few months back to resume with the Lions where he left off in South Africa three years ago, is under pressure from a younger challenger in Danny Care.  Who is to say that England’s hitherto accident-prone scrum-half, won’t be the main man for the Lions next year, provided he keeps on the straight and narrow between now and then?
Sam Warburton, head and shoulders above the rest as both openside and captain for so much of last season, will appreciate that now he, too has some serious rivals, from within Wales as well as elsewhere.  Justin Tipuric can be relied upon to keep pushing him all the way next season as well as England captain Chris Robshaw, Scotland’s Ross Rennie and Leinster’s multi-purpose back rower, Sean O’Brien.
His dynamic capacity to create the same sort of havoc from the blindside will demand that Lydiate stays at the very pinnacle of his game if he is to be the Lions No6.   Even that may not be enough to resist Tom Croft should the Leicester flanker respond to injury by soaring to the peaks of athleticism and pace which made him such a force for the Lions against the Springboks in 2009.
While several of his compatriots face some serious competition as Test Lions, one Welshman has come from nowhere since the World Cup to stake a powerful claim.  Ian Evans, one of the pillars on which the Grand Slam was built, finished the Six Nations alongside Scotland’s Richie Gray as the form locks of the championship.
A Lions Test team to play next week, which would mean ruling out Paul O’Connell and Jamie Roberts because of injury, shows what a difference a few months can make, not least in virtually halving the Welsh contingent:
15 Rob Kearney (Ireland)
14 Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
13 Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
12 Jonathan Davies (Wales)
11 George North (Wales)
10 Jonny Sexton (Ireland)
9 Danny Care (England)
1 Cian Healy (Ireland)
2 Rory Best (Ireland)
3 Dan Cole (England)
4 Richie Gray (Scotland)
5 Ian Evans (Wales)
6 Dan Lydiate (Wales)
7 Sam Warburton (Wales)
8 Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
There is nothing more certain than that the picture will change again before Christmas and again after it.  By then Gatland will expect to be in situ as Lions head coach, free of Welsh commitments to take a more detached look at the contenders from the other countries.
The one certainty is that in finalising his squad at the end of next year’s Six Nations, Gatland will have some tough choices to make involving some of those whose performances helped make him the outstanding candidate for the Lions job.

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