Roaring Lions

Skysports.com's rugby union writer Tony Curtis sticks his neck on his line by naming his 37-man British and Irish squad to tour Australia.

By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter: @SkysportsTC.   Last Updated: 06/12/12 10:50am

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Leigh Halfpenny: Is pushing hard for the No 15 jersey

Leigh Halfpenny: Is pushing hard for the No 15 jersey

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There might be a lot of rugby between now and the official announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad to tour Australia in June 2013, however that has not stopped people speculating on who will be on the flight.

The differing starting XVs have caused massive debate among fans - and, to be honest, head coach Warren Gatland and his backroom staff face an unenviable selection headache.

And with just under six months to go until the opening match of the tour - against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1 - skysports.com's rugby union writer Tony Curtis has "ummed", "ahhed" and argued with himself before naming his 37-man squad for the trip.

Overview

The selection of a 37-man squad is based around the 2009 Lions criteria, rather than Sir Clive Woodward's cast of thousands four years before.

Admittedly some of the players named might have missed the autumn Tests, so the selections have been based on them returning to full fitness in time for the tour. I have also made the wild assumption that the French-based contingent will be cleared to take part as well.

Obviously there are a whole host of variables that could impact selection - form, fitness, etc - however these are the players I would go for (along with those that are knocking on the door).

Back three

There is a real wealth of talent in these positions and - along with the back-row - it is hard to second guess the way Gatland could go.

Rob Kearney has arguably been the leading No 15 in the northern in recent years. A cool, calm character he is unruffled at the back - safe under the high ball and a classy broken field runner.

However Leigh Halfpenny has staked a claim over recent seasons and is really maturing into a class act. His goal-kicking, particularly from long range, is a potent weapon in the arsenal.

Skysports.com's Lions squad

Back three: Rob Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny, Tim Visser, Chris Ashton, Craig Gilroy, George North.
Centres: Brian O'Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Keith Earls.
Half-backs: Jonathan Sexton, Owen Farrell, Rhys Priestland, Danny Care, Conor Murray, Henry Pyrgos.
Front rows: Dan Cole, Ryan Grant, Gethin Jenkins, Cian Healy, Adam Jones, Rory Best, Dylan Hartley, Matthew Rees.
Second rows: Luke Charteris, Geoff Parling, Richie Gray, Donnacha Ryan, Joe Launchbury.
Back-rows: Tom Wood, Sam Warburton, Stephen Ferris, Dan Lydiate, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Toby Faletau

Halfpenny can also cover on the wing, but there is plenty of competition outwide. Countryman George North made a big impression at the World Cup and continues to develop, while Tim Visser has emerged as a deadly finisher at international level.

Chris Ashton finally broke his scoring drought against New Zealand and his work-rate means he keeps defenders occupied throughout, while I have gone for a wildcard pick in Craig Gilroy for the final spot. The Irishman really caught the eye during November but he needs a good RBS Six Nations campaign to secure his place.

Knocking on the door: England trio Ben Foden, Alex Goode and Mike Brown are sure to be in the thoughts of the coaches, particularly given their versatility, while Alex Cuthbert could easily force his way to the side. Tommy Bowe's finishing prowess could earn him the chance, while Simon Zebo is another who will make things difficult for the selectors if he can carry on his recent form.

Centres

The evergreen Brian O'Driscoll has to be the first name on the list for the midfield places on the tour, with the Irishman still oozing class. His partnership with Jamie Roberts was one of the highlights of the tour to South Africa in '09 and who would bet against them linking up to devastating effect once again.

Jonathan Davies is another who has benefited from playing alongside Roberts, while Manu Tuilagi might have his critics but he is a human wrecking ball and his sheer power means he attracts defenders to him.

Keith Earls is perhaps the unluckiest man in rugby in the sense that he has O'Driscoll ahead of him in the pecking order. However he is a class act in his own right and a versatile performer.

Knocking on the door: Luke Marshall, like fellow countryman Gilroy, threw down his marker during the autumn but the tour might have come just too soon, while the same could be said for Jonathan Joseph who has impressed in his limited appearances for England. Scotland's Matt Scott is also an international novice but he has shown plenty so far - despite his country's disappointing form - to say he could warrant a place.

Half-backs

Jonathan Sexton looks to be the main man for the No 10 jersey with a series of irrepressible display, including against Argentina.

Pushing him hard is Owen Farrell - and while the England fly-half might have his critics about some of his attacking play he is Mr Consistency and against New Zealand he proved why he was nominated for the IRB Player of the Year award.

And if he can recapture his confidence and form then Rhys Priestland will be back among the mix for the starting jersey.

The battle for the scrum-half berth is less clear - with players playing themselves out of the squad rather than the other way round. Danny Care, who when on form is a different class, and Conor Murray would be my two initial picks, with another wildcard selection, this time Scottish tyro Henry Pyrgos, completing the trio.

Knocking on the door: Toby Flood hasn't done anything wrong for England, while the two Jacksons - Paddy and Ruaridh - could force their way into the reckoning too. Ben Youngs, Mike Phillips and Tavis Knoyle could all offer something different in the No 9 jersey.

Front row

With the scrum set to be the central battleground - given the belief that the Wallabies are susceptible upfront - then the front-row selections will be key.

I am a big fan of Dan Cole, not just for his scrummaging but his poaching at the breakdown, while Cian Healy has really come on leaps and bounds. Gethin Jenkins might not have enjoyed the best of autumns but he is work-rate for a prop is second-to-none, while fitness-permitting Adam Jones will sure to be on board the plane.

The final selection is another Scottish wildcard with Ryan Grant getting the nod. He might have only won a handful of caps but the former soldier looked like an experienced campaigner as he got the better of South Africa's Jannie du Plessis.

Rory Best is my favourite to start at hooker, however England's Dylan Hartley might have a say in the matter once he returns to full fitness. Matthew Rees, one of the stars four years ago, is another who will be fighting hard to play.

Knocking on the door: Alex Corbisiero made a telling impression on his return to the England pack, while Mako Vunipola caught the eye off the bench although the tour is likely to be four years too soon for him. Mike Ross has gone from strength-to-strength at Leinster, while you can never write off Euan Murray. Richardt Strauss looked good in his first forays into international rugby, while Ross Ford is another seasoned campaigner.

Second rows

There is plenty of talented to call upon for the engine room - but it is Richie Gray, the star of a poor Scotland team, who is likely to be the first name on a lot of people's team sheets.

Geoff Parling would then get my vote - with the lock's role as the lineout general crucial to England's success - while Luke Charteris' work in defence simply phenomenal.

Donnacha Ryan has announced himself on the international stage as the latest in a long line of Irish second row kingpins, while I am a big fan of what Joe Launchbury has done in his limited time so he, perhaps controversially, gets my last pick.

Knocking on the door: It is a hard decision not to include Paul O'Connell in the squad as he is the sort of man you'd want in the trenches with you but I worry about his long-term fitness, while Courtney Lawes could easily replace Launchbury. Mike McCarthy, like Ryan, caught the eye in the autumn Tests, while Alun Wyn Jones and Alastair Kellock could state a good argument for a call-up.

Back rows

Sam Warburton seems nailed on to be in the side - if not the captain - Down Under, while he should be joined by compatriots Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau in the squad.

Tom Wood is my pick for the No 6 jersey given his immediate impact back in the England side but the Northampton man faces a dogfight with Stephen Ferris for that role.

Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, a contender for the captaincy, should also be nailed on the trip having formed a fearsome partnership with Ferris.

Knocking on the door: Tom Croft will be pushing hard once he is pack to full fitness, while Kelly Brown has not got the credit he deserves. Justin Tipuric's experience at seven will do his chances no harm, while it would be tough to overlook the England captain Chris Robshaw. David Denton's power at No 8 and Ben Morgan's continued development will mean they will fancy their chances of travelling too.

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