We’re into the last weeks of the northern hemisphere’s club rugby season. Unless of course you’re in France where you’ll be asked to play incessantly until about late August, take a day off and then start the 2013/14 season. If anyone is hoping to book a place on the Lions Tour to Australia, now is the time to shine.
It’s a fascinating time of the four year cycle. Lots of teams are out of the running for silverware, but some players will still be giving it everything they have to impress the management. It’s like all the little annoying kids in school sticking up their hands, praying that the teacher asks them just so they can show off how great they are. Except in this case instead of ‘little annoying kids’ we have ‘grown beasts of men who could crush you at will’.
With not long to go until Warren Gatland finalises the squad he hopes will shut the Aussies’ smug gobs, players from 66.67% of the Six Nations will be trying their best to convince the Lions head coach that they’re the best man for the job.
Speculation is rife as to who will get the honour of being the one who the referee gives out to at every available opportunity that is the Lions Captaincy. Thanks to Munster’s upsetting of Harlequins, Paul O’Connell shot to surprise prominence in the last couple of weeks, but the incident in which Dave Kearney’s head viciously assaulted O’Connell’s shin may have dented his hopes. It looks like a toss-up between Sam Warbuton of Wales and Brian O’Driscoll of Ireland who are 7/5 joint favourites in the Lions Captain Betting. BOD could just shade it due to his previous experience of toss-ups – namely that time in 2005 when the All Blacks tossed the then Lions captain into the air and slammed him into the ground about a minute into that year’s series.
Across the pitch there are some fascinating contests for the starting positions. Jonathon Sexton is odds on to be the Lions’ starting outhalf, but Owen Farrell could yet benefit thanks to the Racing Metro bound star’s injury troubles. Alongside, Mike Phillips looks certain to be scrum half, but things aren’t so clear elsewhere. Five into two doesn’t go according to our abacus and that’s the scenario at centre. The odds suggest Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi are the likely starters, but BOD, Brad Barritt and Jonathon Davies will all feel they’ve got a chance of squeezing their way in. On the wings, the Welsh due of Alex Cuthbert and George North are favourites to get the nod for ‘taking all the credit when everybody else did all the hard work’ duty, but the mercurial talents and swan-diving of Chris Ashton are hard to rule out. At fullback, Leigh Halfpenny is the hot favourite to start the first Test, but if Rob Kearney continues the form he showed against Munster, he could be the shrewd bet at 10/3.
The mix between the nailed on and the still very uncertain is also continued in the pack – although in a much more burly and less flamboyant way. Ireland’s Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones are the favourites to resume their partnership at lock that began the first Test against South Africa four years ago, but it’s less clear elsewhere. Two thirds of the front row looks picked, but there’s fierce competition at hooker. Rory Best is the current favourite, but a strong end to the season from Richard Hibbard, Tom Youngs, Dylan Hartley or even Richardt Strauss would make them serious contenders for the role. The greatest competition however is probably in the back row where the Lions have an abundance of world class talent, but only three starting spots up for grabs. It speaks volumes that the betting tells us two current and one former international captains (Chris Robshaw, Jamie Heaslip and Ryan Jones) are currently outside the reckoning. If that wasn’t enough, the presence of Stephen Ferris as the 30/1 outsider of 15 shows the ferocious competition for places in the division.
But – as Gavin Henson’s career has shown us – things can change very quickly in rugby. One minute you can be the hottest property in the game and the next you’re cha-cha-cha-ing for your life on primetime television. There’s still time for the best laid plans to change and for your speculative hunches to be rewarded handsomely.