Sky Sports rugby union writer Tony Curtis looks at those players who could make it into the British and Irish Lions squad.
By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter @SkysportsTC. Last Updated: 08/04/13 10:42am
The British and Irish Lions is the pinnacle of any rugby player's career - and a place on the tour is predominately saved for experienced internationals.
However it is not unusual for there to be one or two wildcard selections to make the squad.
Sky Sports pundit Will Greenwood, John Bentley, Dickie Jeeps, Derek Quinnell and Elgan Rees are among those players who have been plucked from left field to wear the famous red jersey.
And with just over three weeks to go before Warren Galtland names his squad to tackle the Wallabies in the summer, we look at those players who could sneak on to the flight.
Remember Sky Sports will be your No 1 destination during the Lions tour, with all 10 matches being shown live, while we will bring you all the latest news, views and action as it happens.
The Wasps winger is in dazzling form this season and has the X-factor that makes fans take an expectant intake of breath whenever he gets the ball. The 21-year-old pocket rocket has scored 20 tries in 34 Premiership appearances, while he further highlighted his potential with two in the Amlin Challenge Cup loss to Leinster. Wade has electric pace and a low centre of gravity which makes him so hard to stop. He has yet to win a full cap for England, but scored once against the Barbarians last May and then ran in a hat-trick during the tour game against SA Barbarians South in June.
The Toulon flanker has been a revelation since moving to France, with his stock among rugby fans reaching record levels. And while the 27-year-old might be frozen out of the international picture with England, he could be the ideal candidate to wear the No 7 jersey for the Lions should Gatland decide to include France-based players. Armitage is an out-and-out poacher with the sort of game that could negate the threat posed by the likes of Michael Hooper, Liam Gill and George Smith. As well as being a menace at the breakdown, Armitage's time in France has seen him develop his running game.
The New Zealand-born flyer would bring something to the party that few other tour hopefuls can - experience of playing Super Rugby. The 24-year-old was fast-tracked into the Scotland side shortly after joining Glasgow Warriors from the Crusaders - with Maitland qualifying to become the last Kilted Kiwi courtesy of his paternal grandparents. Maitland, who went to the same school as Lions coach Warren Gatland, spent five seasons with the Crusaders, scoring 24 tries. Lightning fast and a dangerous counter-attacker, Maitland has improved his work-rate since his move north and impressed during the Six Nations.
It seems impossible to consider that a player of the stature of Wilkinson could be a wildcard for the Lions, however it is 18 months since his last international appearance. Wilkinson retired from the England team after the 2011 World Cup, with the 33-year-old having won 91 caps and scored 1,179 points. Wilkinson, though, has been enjoying some of the best form of his career with Toulon and with the Lions short on options at No 10, he could be the perfect cover for Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell. Wilkinson's experience with the Lions could also be crucial - as he played all the Tests on the 2001 and 2005 tours.
Like Wilkinson, O'Connell really shouldn't be classed as an outsider for the Lions, however, the Munster lock has endured an horrendous spell with injuries. He could, though, have timed his return to action to perfection. A long-standing back injury appeared to rule him out of contention for the tour, but the 2009 skipper proved his value with his man-of-the-match display against Harlequins. The 33-year-old is a talismanic figure and one of the best lineout operators in the business. He now has a handful of matches - including a semi-final against Clermont - to prove he is worth taking over the young pretenders.
The Newport Gwent Dragons lock emerged from nowhere to become one of the success stories of Wales' Six Nations-winning campaign. A spate of injuries to second rows saw Coombs promoted to the squad for the Six Nations and he took his chance with both hands. The late-blooming 28-year-old put in a string of eye-catching displays with his unrelenting work rate very much to the fore. And his rise is all the more impressive considering he didn't make the breakthrough to regional rugby until the 2009/10 season and has only appeared a total of 46 times in four seasons for the Newport-Gwent outfit.
Playing in France might be a case of out of sight, out of mind for some, however, James Hook has continued to impress for Perpignan. For Wales, he has appeared to pay the price for his versatility - with Hook having been shuffled across the backline. But while Wales haven't been able to harness the best of his talents, the Lions could be his salvation. A highly-skilled operator, Hook has lovely hands, an eye for a gap and the ability to exploit it. He is also a reliable kicker, having weighed in with 242 points in the Top 14 this season - with only Rory Kockott and Jonny Wilkinson having scored more.
The Saracens centre has been given time to acclimatise to life in rugby union since switching from the 13-a-side code - and the move has paid dividends. The 26-year-old made his name playing league with Wigan before moving to Saracens in November 2011. After a slow start - where he admits he was like 'a headless chicken' - Tomkins has got better with every game he has played, earning a call up to the Saxons. Tomkins has played a key role in Saracens' rise to the top of the Premiership and into the Heineken Cup semi-finals, with his ability to offload and release others with his passing crucial.