Lions 2013: England resurgence adds to Lions options

 

"The Lions is going to be a great series," said Australia coach Robbie Deans on Saturday after his weary players had pulled a notable win out of the fire in Cardiff.

"If you look at the games we have had with Wales this year [four wins in four tourniquet-tight Tests], that gives us an insight into what to expect."

But hopefully, from a British and Irish point of view, not an accurate indicator of the outcome.

Opta's autumn Home Nations XV

15 Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)

14 Sean Lamont (Scotland)

13 Manu Tuilagi (England)

12 Brad Barritt (England)

11 George North (Wales)

10 Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)

9 Mike Phillips (Wales)

1 Cian Healy (Ireland)

2 Richardt Strauss (Ireland)

3 Euan Murray (Scotland)

4 Joe Launchbury (England)

5 Geoff Parling (England)

6 Kelly Brown (Scotland)

7 Chris Robshaw (England)

8 Toby Faletau (Wales)

Compiled from Opta Sports statistics for autumn Tests played against teams in world's top 12 (not Fiji). Players must have played at least two Tests.

If the home nations' autumn statement lacked conviction for much of the past month, there were at least belated signs of deficit reduction against the southern hemisphere's finest.

Ireland's "excellent" performance - Warren Gatland's description - against Argentina, Wales' agonising near-miss against the Wallabies, and most startlingly, a record England victory over New Zealand all offered encouragement to Lions enthusiasts.

"It's obviously a great result for England, so I will be having a good look at that game," said head honcho Gatland as he assessed the current state of play.

"The autumn is always an indication but the Six Nations becomes very important now, not just for confidence, as players doing well with their individual teams will have a bearing."

Before the autumn Tests started, we asked four BBC analysts - ex-England centre Jeremy Guscott , former Ireland hooker Keith Wood , ex-Scotland scrum-half Andy Nicol and Wales fly-half legend Jonathan Davies - to pick their Lions Test teams, assuming everyone is fit and available.

Here are their latest preferences now the first part of the international season is complete.

Jeremy Guscott's team: R Kearney (Ire), T Visser (Sco), B O'Driscoll (Ire), M Tuilagi (Eng), G North (Wal); J Sexton (Ire), D Care (Eng); C Healy (Ire), R Best (Ire), A Jones (Wal), R Gray (Sco), G Parling (Eng), T Croft (Eng), S Armitage (Eng), D Denton (Sco).

Keith Wood's team: L Halfpenny (Wal), T Bowe (Ire), M Tuilagi (Eng), B O Driscoll (Ire), G North (Wal); J Sexton (Ire), B Youngs (Eng); C Healy (Ire), R Best (Ire), A Jones (Wal), R Gray (Sco), C Lawes (Eng), S Ferris (Ire), S Warburton (Wal), S O'Brien (Ire).

Andy Nicol's team: A Goode (Eng), T Bowe (Ire), M Tuilagi (Eng), J Roberts (Wal), T Visser (Sco); J Sexton (Ire), B Youngs (Eng); G Jenkins (Wal), D Hartley (Eng), D Cole (Eng), R Gray (Sco), C Lawes (Eng), S Ferris (Ire), S O'Brien (Ire), T Faletau (Wal).

Jonathan Davies's team: R Kearney (Ire), T Bowe (Ire), J Davies (Wal), M Tuilagi (Eng), G North (Wal); J Sexton (Ire), D Care (Eng); C Healy (Ire), D Hartley (Eng), A Jones (Wal), J Launchbury (Eng), AW Jones (Wal), T Wood (Eng), S Warburton (Wal), B Morgan (Eng). * Updated 14:51 GMT Monday

Looking at our four pundits' selections, it is clear some players have made advances over the past four weeks, some have lost ground, while others who have not played because of injury remain favourites to confirm their places assuming they return to fitness and form.

The squad for the tour will be selected next spring, after the Six Nations.

BACK THREE

England full-back Alex Goode and Scotland wing Tim Visser have launched themselves into contention on the back of strong autumn performances.

Nick Cummins scores for Australia against England

Autumn internationals: The best tries

The emergence of Goode, who impressed again against New Zealand as England's 'sweeper' and alternative first receiver, could see him challenge Ireland's Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny - a shining light in a dark autumn for Wales - for the number 15 jersey.

Chris Ashton belatedly reminded us he is still one of the best finishers when his radar sniffs a try-scoring pass, while Visser has joined Wales' George North and Alex Cuthbert among the power-packed wing options. A revived Tommy Bowe, a Lions star in South Africa, means he remains a strong bet for a similar role down under.

MIDFIELD

There is still confidence in Brian O'Driscoll's ability to force his way onto a fourth Lions tour, even though the great man may miss the entire Six Nations following shoulder surgery.

Manu Tuilagi, enjoying his best game for England (three sumptuous offloads, one try, and a hand in the other two) against New Zealand, revealed an artful side to complement his awesome power. Anyone who leaves Dan Carter and Richie McCaw grasping at fresh air in the same devastating burst demands attention.

Jonathan Davies remains a strong contender after his intelligence invigorated Wales' attack in their final two games but fellow Welshman Jamie Roberts, hampered by injury, needs a strong Six Nations to re-establish his claims.

HALF-BACKS

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton was the unanimous choice for the number 10 jersey a month ago and remains so, his virtuoso display against Argentina one of the autumn highlights.

Chris Ashton scores England's second try

England 38-21 New Zealand highlights

Rhys Priestland at least recovered some of his poise against Australia, while Owen Farrell enjoyed a superb game for England, but the Irishman is the red-hot favourite.

At scrum-half, Wales' Mike Phillips - another leading Lion in South Africa - has fallen out of favour with our pundits. For the time being, it appears the two England scrum-halves, Ben Youngs and Danny Care, are in pole position for the number nine shirt.

FRONT ROW

A sluggish autumn from Gethin Jenkins, twice dropped by Wales, has seen Ireland's Cian Healy become favourite to land the loose-head Test berth, but Adam Jones remains the leading tight-head option, his autumn absence only serving to highlight his importance.

But England's scrummaging performances against the Springboks and All Blacks ensure that Dan Cole, Alex Corbisiero and the powerful Mako Vunipola also come into the reckoning.

Andrew Sheridan, loitering in France with Toulon, may yet be summoned for a third tour of duty if Gatland decides the scrum is a potential source of Wallaby weakness the Lions can exploit.

SECOND ROW

Richie Gray, despite suffering with the rest of the Scotland team, maintained his own form and remains the number one choice for three of our pundits.

Wales 12-14 Australia

Wales 12-14 Australia - highlights

With Alun Wyn Jones suffering an untimely injury that could curtail his Six Nations activity and fellow Welshman Ian Evans also sidelined of late, three Englishmen are pushing hard.

Courtney Lawes, despite a knee injury restricting him to the final 14 minutes of England's campaign, retains his supporters, but his absence allowed Joe Launchbury an opening. The 21-year-old's mobility, handling skills and set-piece prowess, plus 14 tackles against the All Blacks, cemented a remarkable rise for a player starting only his second Test.

Geoff Parling, unyielding in defence, is also presenting an under-stated case. He oversaw a virtually unblemished line-out against New Zealand, and took more throws (21) than any other player this autumn.

BACK ROW

A man-of-the-match display against the All Blacks can't do you any harm. Tom Wood was remorseless against the world champions, cranking up the breakdown pressure to help subdue more illustrious opponents.

With the likes of Stephen Ferris, Dan Lydiate and Tom Croft all yet to return from injury, the Englishman chose a good time to deliver a powerful selection statement.

Chris Robshaw's individual stats continue to stack up, but Gatland's stated preference for an out-and-out open-side specialist to counter the Wallabies' breakdown expertise suggests Sam Warburton remains in pole position after a strong finish to the autumn.

Steffon Armitage, ignored by England but tripping the light fantastic in Toulon, remains an intriguing alternative.