Red-hot Welsh in line to dominate Lions selection
IRELAND have a proud and influential history with the Lions, but when it comes to the gear, the Irish are well down the pecking order.
The Lions wear a red jersey (the Welsh colours), the shorts are white (England) and the socks are blue (Scotland). Ireland's green? You will find it on a narrow band at the top of the socks.
Of course, colour dominance has nothing to do with squad or Test team representation, but the red jersey does seem to fit Lions folklore, given the over-riding Welsh influence on the two most famous Lions tours in 1971 and 1974.
And, little over a year away from the squad selection for the 2013 tour to Australia, the red jersey again seems reflective of likely dominance by the Welsh, who, as it stands, would provide the head coach and front-runners in practically every position on the Test side.
Naturally, we would be in a better position to assess Irish candidates if last weekend's clash with France had not been called off, but there is no disputing that all the momentum is with the Welsh, for now.
Head coach: Warren Gatland (Wales)
Contenders: Declan Kidney (Ireland), Andy Robinson (Scotland), Ian McGeechan
Gatland appears to have the head coach role in the bag, with the Lions committee already approaching the WRU to confirm a six-month sabbatical for the New Zealander. The official decision will be made after this year's Six Nations is concluded but, realistically, it seems the Lions have their man.
If Kidney oversaw four comprehensive victories and a Six Nations title, the Ireland coach could come back into the reckoning, but it would require a major implosion by Wales or some sort of scandal for Gatland not to be appointed.
Andy Robinson was unable to steer Scotland to victory over an England side who were there for the taking, before being blown away by Wales and while there are romantics who would love to see 'Geech' get the job again, his recent coaching record does not stack up.
Full-back: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
Contenders: Rob Kearney (Ireland), Ben Foden (England)
Three quality players to choose from. Kearney and Foden are having big seasons, but Halfpenny has been a revelation -- brave at the back, scintillating on the run and with the added bonus of top-quality place-kicking.
Right-wing: Alex Cuthbert (Wales)
Contenders: Chris Ashton (England), Tommy Bowe (Ireland)
It is early days for Cuthbert, but if he continues to play the way he did against Scotland last weekend, the 6' 6" flyer has it all ahead of him.
Not merely a big, Matt Banahan-style basher, Cuthbert runs intelligent, deceptive lines and looks to have a bit of football about him also -- although we will know more when he is tested in defence. Ashton and Bowe are top-class wingers seeking to rediscover their best form in the coming months.
Outside centre: Jon Davies (Wales)
Contenders: Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Keith Earls (Ireland)
Davies may be built more like a crash-ball 12, but he is proving highly effective in the outside slot, his speed off the mark and raw power making him a consistent ground-gainer. The hope is that O'Driscoll returns from his six-month rehab fit and firing for one last shot at a fourth tour and he would walk into the Test side if that happens, while Earls has definitely got the ability, but needs to be assessed over the rest of the championship.
Inside centre: Jamie Roberts (Wales)
Contenders: James Hook (Wales), Fergus McFadden (Ireland)
No contest at inside-centre, where Roberts has returned to the type of form that made him the Lions player of the series on the 2009 tour to South Africa. With O'Driscoll's future unknown, midfield is a problem area behind the top two and Hook's experience and utility role could bring him into play, while McFadden has versatility also and all the qualities to be a superb international 12.
Left-wing: George North (Wales)
Contenders: Luke Fitzgerald (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Andrew Trimble (Ireland)
Again, no real competition for the No 11 jersey, where North is building impressively on his impact at the World Cup. Scotland appear to have unearthed a gem in Hogg, while Trimble has the right make-up to be an effective contributor to a Lions squad. Injury problems have affected Fitzgerald's candidature, but a player of his talents will surely come back into the equation.
Out-half: Rhys Priestland (Wales)
Contenders: Ronan O'Gara (Ireland), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
Place-kicking may be an issue for the Welsh 10, but Priestland's all-round game looks extremely assured and there is always Halfpenny to kick the points. O'Gara would love to round off a stellar career with a fourth Lions tour and if he keeps up his current form, there is no reason why he shouldn't, regardless of the fact he will be 36. Sexton, at his best, would push hard for a Test spot, but, with due respect to Charlie Hodgson, other out-half contenders are thin on the ground.
Scrum-half: Mike Phillips (Wales)
Contenders: Conor Murray (Ireland), Ben Youngs (England)
Phillips is a shoo-in at No 9, now probably the top scrum-half in world rugby, with plenty of experience to go with his ability. Murray has the potential to become the first Irish scrum-half to tour with the Lions since 1980 and fits the current trend of having big men along the backline, while Youngs is a gifted player striving to find his best form. Wales also have the potential to provide more than one scrum-half as Rhys Webb and Lloyd Williams are serious talents.
Loose-head prop: Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
Contenders: Cian Healy (Ireland), Alex Corbisiero (England)
Very tight call between Jenkins and Healy, with the experienced Welshman just shading it -- a situation that could change by next year, given Healy's rate of progression. Behind these two, there is not a whole lot to choose from. Paul James is a solid operator for Wales, but Corbisiero has been decent for England.
Hooker: Rory Best (Ireland)
Contenders: Matthew Rees (Wales), Dylan Hartley (England)
Finally, a non-Welshman. Rees, currently injured, was the Lions Test hooker last time around and is an excellent operator, but Best has brought his game onto an entirely different level over the past year and would be outside shot at Lions captain.
Hartley, love him or loathe him, is a decent rugby player and probably just ahead of Scotland's Ross Ford.
Tight-head prop: Adam Jones (Wales)
Contenders: Dan Cole (England), Euan Murray (Scotland)
Jones saved the Lions scrum in 2009 before he was taken out by Bakkies Botha and has been a model of consistency for the Welsh.
Cole is a tough operator who will have come on again by next year and Murray's scrummaging and all-round game make him worthy of a second tour -- especially with no Sunday fixtures to compromise his Christian beliefs.
Mike Ross' scrummaging ability would put him in the mix also, but the Lions may lean towards younger men for an open game.
Second-row: Courtney Lawes (England)
Contenders: Donnacha Ryan (Ireland), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales)
England are missing the injured Lawes big time, forced to turn to a journeyman South African (Mouritz Botha) to fill the void.
Lawes is a fantastic modern second-row, athletic, industrious and with the bit of dog that is needed.
Jones, also injured, will push hard for a Test slot at his best, while if Ryan continues his rate of progress, he will have to come into the mix.
Second-row: Paul O'Connell (Ireland)
Contenders: Richie Gray (Scotland), Luke Charteris (Wales)
The series may have been lost in 2009, but O'Connell's captaincy won widespread approval and he has been rejuvenated since his return from injury. Gray and Charteris will provide a stern challenge, but O'Connell's proven leadership gives him the edge.
Blindside flanker: Stephen Ferris (Ireland)
Contenders: Dan Lydiate (Wales), James Haskell (England), Ryan Jones (Wales)
Ferris' 2009 tour was cut off by freak injury, but he has shown this season with a run of matches why he was so highly rated. Lydiate is a workhorse for Wales and would serve the tour well while Haskell, despite being currently out of the England scene, has more about him than the athletic, but lightweight Tom Croft. Jones, still only 30, has Lions pedigree and is in a rich vein of form.
Openside flanker: Sam Warburton (Wales)
Contenders: John Barclay (Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Wales), Peter O'Mahony (Ireland)
Another captaincy contender, Warburton is, by some distance, the best No 7 among the Lions nations. Barclay is an old-style openside, but, bizarrely, cannot force his way past Ross Rennie (who apparently does not know how to give a scoring pass) into the Scotland back-row, while Tipuric is cut from the same cloth as Warburton. O'Mahony may seem like the darkest or dark horses, but he is a player with the capacity to be a major force on the international stage.
No 8: Sean O'Brien (Ireland)
Contenders: Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Toby Faletau (Wales)
Heaslip was exceptional on the last tour and is hitting form at the right time to aid Ireland's Six Nations aspirations, but you just feel O'Brien, who can cover across the back-row, would be sensational carrying the ball on Australia's hard grounds, while Faletau has been at the forefront of Wales' youthful revival. David Denton is making strides with Scotland and will be watched with interest.