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Lancaster University might be the home of the Cats, but there is an altogether bigger feline roaming the Savannah of the rugby calendar this year. I am of course referring to the looming British and Irish Lions tour of Australia this coming summer. Every four years, the cream of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish Rugby band together in a three test series, against one of the top Southern Hemisphere sides; South Africa, Australia or New Zealand. It is considered to be the biggest world rugby event with the exception of the World Cup. The Lions will be seeking their first series win since the South Africa tour of 1997. In 2001 they narrowly lost out in Australia, followed by a 3-0 hammering by the All Blacks in 2005 and most recently lost out in the most heartbreaking fashion in the 2009 tour of South Africa. This time around, the Lions return to Australia; after a mixed bag of results in this year’s Autumn Series, Lions Coach Warren Gatland will have a notepad fit to bursting with observations. Not all of them positive.
Ireland had a relatively quiet series, but have a lot of positives to go on, with a narrow loss to South Africa and emphatic wins over Fiji and Argentina; blooding some young guns in the process. Scotland finished the series with three defeats to New Zealand, South Africa, and disastrously Tonga, the aftermath of which saw coach Andy Robinson step down as Head Coach. They now find themselves ranked twelfth in the IRB World Rankings, without a coach, and a challenging Six Nations ahead of them. Wales are only just a little bit better off, with four defeats (including another shock defeat to Samoa) and showing little or none of the skill and ability that saw them crowned Grand Slam winners earlier this year. Their poor performances see them drop out of the IRB Top Eight, and as a result they now face England and Australia in the same pool in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Meanwhile at Twickenham, we saw exactly how much difference in perspective eighty minutes can cause. After close defeats to Australia and South Africa, nobody expected England to beat the world champions, let alone give them a world record breaking walloping! They now face the challenge to repeat that performance, but Lancaster’s boys well and truly threw the gauntlet down.
Although the Lions squad do not fly to Australia for another six months, pundits and critics across the country are already putting their opinion on the line with potential squad selections, and at SCAN: Sports, we felt a similar outspokenness would not go amiss! And what better way to determine who, at Lancaster, has the rugby wherewithal to be SCAN’s own Lions Coach.
THE LANCASTER CAT’S LIONS XV (James Halliwell, Chairman)
1. Cian Healy (IRE) 2. Tom Youngs (ENG) 3. Gethin Jenkins (WAL)
4. Tom Palmer (ENG) 5. Richie Gray (SCO)
6. Stephen Ferris (IRE) 7. Sam Warburton (WAL) 8. Jamie Heaslip (IRE)
9. Connor Murray (IRE) 10. Jonny Sexton (IRE)
12. Manu Tuilagi (ENG) 13. Jamie Roberts (WAL)
11. George North (WAL) 14. Tommy Bowe (IRE) 15. Rob Kearny (IRE)
The Cat’s Chairman James Halliwell fields a solid selection, a balance of current form and reputation. With seven Irishman in the XV, (four Welshmen, three Englishmen and a lone Scot), it seems the men in green impressed the Cats this autumn.
RHYS ELIAS, LAST YEAR’S SCAN SPORTS EDITOR
1. Dan Cole (ENG) 2. Rory Best (IRE) 3. Cian Healey (IRE)
4. Sam Warburton (WAL) 5. Richie Gray (SCO)
6. Stephen Ferris (IRE) 7. Chris Robshaw (ENG) 8. Toby Faletau (WAL)
9. Ben Youngs (ENG) 10. Jonny Sexton (IRE)
12. Brian O’Driscoll (IRE) 13. Manu Tuilagi (ENG)
11. George North (WAL) 14. Tommy Bowe (IRE) 15. Leigh Halfpenny (WAL
Wales had a disappointing autumn, but there were a number of players who put their hand up for me and who I feel still deserve to go to Australia, Leigh Halfpenny being the biggest stand out performer. With England and Ireland as strong as they were, there can be no doubt that key Scottish players will be overlooked in the selection process. For me the first man on my team sheet would be Manu Tuilagi, whose autumn performance was nothing short of outstanding.
WILL TAYLOR, CURRENT SCAN SPORTS EDITOR
1. Dan Cole (ENG) 2. Tom Youngs (ENG) 3. Gethin Jenkins (WAL)
4. Joe Launchbury (ENG) 5. Alun Wyne-Jones (WAL)
6. Tom Wood (ENG) 7. Sam Warburton (WAL) 8. Toby Faletau (WAL)
9. Ben Youngs (ENG) 10. Jonny Wilkinson (ENG)
12. Manu Tuilagi (ENG) 13. Jamie Roberts (WAL)
11. Alex Cuthbert (WAL) 14. Tommy Bowe (IRE) 15. Leigh Halfpenny (WAL)
England’s improvements have led me into selecting a heavy Red Rose contingent, with the somewhat controversial call to select Wilkinson at fly-half. Despite his retirement from international rugby, the World Cup winning talisman has not ruled out a final tour of duty with the Lions. And with his form in Frances Top 14 with Toulon, as well as his leadership in an unbeaten Heineken Cup run, I’m once again putting my faith in him. With the rest of this team around him, it could be a deadly mixture of talent, reliability and flair.