Lions squad 2013: Jonny Wilkinson threatens to oust Owen Farrell

A 38-man British and Irish Lions squad will finally be unveiled on Tuesday after an intense 11th-hour debate over the potential inclusion of Jonny Wilkinson.

It is understood the last two remaining places in the tour party heading for Australia boiled down to an elimination contest between Wilkinson, Owen Farrell and their England colleague Billy Twelvetrees, with the unlucky loser consigned to the standby list.

The England captain, Chris Robshaw, meanwhile, is under serious risk of joining Scotland's Kelly Brown and Ryan Jones of Wales, fellow international captains, in being left at home.

Until a fortnight ago the 33-year-old Wilkinson had been ruled out of contention but his outstanding display as captain of Toulon in Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final has complicated Warren Gatland's final selection. The plan had been to employ Twelvetrees, who has won only two starting caps for England as a centre, as a makeshift third fly-half behind Farrell and Jonathan Sexton. Wilkinson's compelling display has now left Farrell, in particular, sweating on Tuesday's announcement.

The official unveiling of the captain is also eagerly awaited, with not everyone in Ireland convinced Sam Warburton is a better bet than Paul O'Connell or Brian O'Driscoll as Gatland's on-field lieutenant. It is understood just eight Englishmen will make the cut, compared with 15 Welshmen and, potentially, a dozen Irishmen. There could be as few as three Scottish tourists – Stuart Hogg, Richie Gray and Ryan Grant – on the 10-match tour which commences against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on 1 June.

Among those set to receive disappointing news are James Hook, the Wales utility back who plays his club rugby for Perpignan, and the Saracens winger Chris Ashton, whose inconsistent form this season has cost him a tour spot.

The management, which includes England's Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree as well as Gatland and Rob Howley, also spent Monday weighing up the pros and cons of taking a lineout specialist such as Geoff Parling or an additional back-row forward in Robshaw. Parling appears the likelier tourist.

Gatland has long expressed a preference for pacy open-sides and is expected to invite Wales's Justin Tipuric and Ireland's Sean O'Brien to travel alongside Warburton.

Injuries in the closing weeks of the domestic season could, of course, require certain plans to be amended and, overall, the squad mix has remained fluid to the end. A brutal weekend of European semi-finals, for example, appears to have propelled Munster's Conor Murray into the squad at the expense of Danny Care, his quicksilver Harlequins rival. Murray has the vision and strength, if not necessarily the blinding pace, to be an asset and will by vying with England's Ben Youngs to be Mike Phillips' Test understudy. Youngs has enviable natural ability but no Munster scrum-half has ever lacked for spirit or attitude.

The reality that six props will be required, following the expansion of Test matchday squads to 23, should also bode well for Mike Ross, the Leinster tighthead who, at times, has had to carry the weight of all Ireland on his shoulders. He and Grant of Glasgow may not have the bullocking ball-carrying game of England's Mako Vunipola but they have vastly more experience and will not be fazed by the wily opponents awaiting them. Alex Corbisiero's injury-ravaged season has undermined his chances of a tour spot and Paul James has just missed out.

There might also have been a case for including the South Africa-born Ireland hooker Richardt Strauss but Gatland has apparently decided, perhaps from personal experience, that players reared overseas need to have been immersed in the northern hemisphere game for a minimum of five years to understand fully what the Lions jersey means. The hooking berths, instead, are set to be filled by Wales's Richard Hibbard, England's Tom Youngs and Ireland's Rory Best, with everyone's fingers crossed that the collective lineout throwing matches the trio's contributions around the park.

Fitness will be another prerequisite, with Dan Lydiate, Paul O'Connell and Richie Gray having all satisfied the medics of their readiness for Lions duty. All have had injury-troubled seasons but Lydiate was the Six Nations player of the tournament in 2012 and O'Connell has been outstanding for Munster since returning from back surgery. Gray, whose move from Sale to Castres next season has been confirmed, has not made the impact he would have hoped in the Premiership but the harder tracks of Australia might just be better suited to his rangy talents.

That may also explain why Twelvetrees has catapulted himself into the frame. The 24-year-old was outstanding in dry, firm conditions against Scotland at the start of the Six Nations but England preferred the doughtier Brad Barritt at inside centre in the latter part of the campaign. Barritt played well in defeat for Saracens against Toulon and remains an outstanding defender but the ankle injury which forced him off the field in the second half has struck at an untimely moment. Twelvetrees, who switched from Leicester to Gloucester only last summer, is also an accomplished goalkicker should the need arise.

Farrell, for his part, must be wishing he had tweaked a hamstring in the warm-up and avoided a direct showdown with Wilkinson less than 48 hours before the Lions announcement. The 21-year-old Saracen also had a tough day at the Millennium Stadium when Wales trounced England to take the Six Nations title and is clearly still learning how to shape games at the highest level. To go with only two specialist fly-halves might seem an acceptable punt from Gatland's perspective but the tour party could easily be exposed should Sexton pick up another injury and Farrell's confidence not make an instant reappearance.

It is also worth bearing in mind the minimal amount of preparation time the Lions have to play with. Training camps in south Wales and Ireland will not be attended by the entire squad, which is due to fly out following the Premiership and RaboDirect Pro 12 finals on 25 May.

Gatland is keen to give every member of the tour party a chance to force his way into contention for a Test place but, aside from the opening fixture in Hong Kong, there will be only two Saturday games prior to the first Test in Brisbane on 22 June.

That explains why Gatland has been so reluctant to invest in French-based players, with the Top 14 final scheduled for 1 June. One or two ex-pats, not least Clermont's Nathan Hines, are worth putting on standby but only Gethin Jenkins, set to leave Toulon and return to Wales this summer, and Wilkinson will await Tuesday's announcement with any great expectancy.

As for the captaincy, it remains the ultimate accolade for any British or Irish player. The 24-year-old Warburton will have done well if he has seen off O'Connell and O'Driscoll, even though the latter pair presided over the respective defeats in 2005 and 2009. Gatland will need a committed lieutenant determined to atone for previous failures. The holy grail, for all concerned, is a first Lions series win since 1997.

Powered by article was written by Robert Kitson, for The Guardian on Tuesday 30th April 2013 08.20 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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