Wednesday 21 February 2018

Leinster and Llanelli stars can lay down early marker for Lions

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

WHEN the Sky Sports pundits had a stab at picking their Lions XV based on the opening weekend of Heineken Cup action on Sunday, Leinster and the Scarlets had just one player between them on the team.

It would be incredible if that was the case next June when Warren Gatland sends his side out to face the Wallabies. Jonathan Davies can expect to be joined by some faces he'll come up against in Saturday afternoon's Pool 5 outing on next year's tour.

The television analysts admitted that their picks were just for fun, but if they were asked to select their team to start versus Australia, you can be sure that a number of the backs who will run out at Parc y Scarlets on Saturday will be on the shortlist.

Gatland's heel surgery might keep him away from Llanelli, but he'll be tuning in from somewhere and the players will be keen to impress.

Rob Kearney may miss out for the visiting Blues, but there are still plenty of likely Lions on show.

It may be a long way away, but the New Zealander will be using Heineken Cup form, as well as international evidence, to pick his side, so Saturday's key duels will give him some ideas.

Out-half

Rhys Priestland v Jonathan Sexton

Unless Owen Farrell has the season of his life, it is a straight shootout between these two as to who will start for the Lions next June.

Baby-faced assassin Priestland has forced 2009 Lions starter Stephen Jones out at both club and country and is a trusted lieutenant of the Gatland regime in Wales.

The New Zealander entrusted the 25-year-old with the No 10 jersey at last year's World Cup and has been rewarded for the most part -- although there have been some shaky moments.

Sexton is many judges' favourite to lead the Lions attack with his blend of attacking verve, strong kicking game and defensive solidity. A strong display against Priestland would help his cause ahead of another expected duel during the Six Nations.

Inside Centre

Scott Williams v Gordon D'Arcy/Fergus McFadden

A third Lions tour appears to be beyond D'Arcy at the moment, but having travelled to South Africa in 2009 after injuries to others opened the door, there remains the possibility that the same could happen again.

McFadden's versatility could see him in the frame if he can build on a strong start to the season and, if he is selected ahead of a fit-again D'Arcy on Saturday, he can test himself against a Test front-runner in Williams.

The 22-year-old Wales international, who scored four tries at last year's World Cup, will see compatriot Jamie Roberts as his main rival, while England's Manu Tuilagi will also be a contender.

Outside Centre

Jonathan Davies v Brian O'Driscoll

Master versus pretender. Davies (24) has impressed when up against O'Driscoll at international level, shackling the Ireland captain in last year's World Cup quarter-final in Wellington. He has become a key member of a well-oiled Welsh back line, with strong running lines, slick hands and a good defensive game.

With his shoulder back to full capacity, the 33-year-old Leinster man has shown glimpses of a return to peak form this season and Scarlets coach Simon Easterby pinpointed his old international team-mate as being the man to stop on Saturday.

With the 2005 captain targeting a fourth tour this summer, a big display against a young man gunning for his place would be well-timed.

Wing

George North v McFadden

This duo met head-on at Lansdowne Road last February and it was North who came out on top.

Most observers have North as a nailed-on Test starter next summer, with his undeniable physical attributes marking him out as someone who will hurt Australia.

If he starts out wide, this will be an opportunity for 26-year-old McFadden to lay down a marker and rid memories of that difficult afternoon in February. With his pace and good feet, the Kildare man can cause North problems.

Irish Independent

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