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Lions prospects under the microscope

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Sportal.co.nz     05 Jan 2013     Getty Images

It is likely to be another four months before Lions head coach Warren Gatland reveals his squad for the three-Test tour of Australia in June and July, with this season's Six Nations Championship set to provide key form indicators.

So at this stage of proceedings, who are Gatland's movers and shakers, the automatic choices and the selection bolters?

BACK THREE

England's recent autumn Test series, which culminated in a seismic victory over New Zealand, saw Alex Goode take his chance superbly as deputy for injured fullback Ben Foden. If Goode maintains that form during the Six Nations then Foden is seemingly up against it Lions-wise.

Wales star Leigh Halfpenny has Lions Test fullback written all over him, while Ireland's Rob Kearney, who impressed hugely on the 2009 South Africa tour, must also travel.

Halfpenny's versatility sees him offer a wing option as well, with Tommy Bowe, George North and Chris Ashton also on board. Tim Visser, Alex Cuthbert and Craig Gilroy all have strong claims, but Gatland has to make a cut somewhere.

CENTRES

If both players are fit and on form, then it would come as no surprise if Gatland reunites the Lions' 2009 Test midfield pairing of Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts against Australia.

O'Driscoll, a strong Lions captaincy contender, will undoubtedly be challenged for the outside centre berth by Wales' Jonathan Davies, with England's Manu Tuilagi another shoe-in.

Eyebrows will be raised if Roberts does not make it, yet tough-tackling England centre Brad Barritt is unlikely to go away quietly. The fourth midfield spot represents a head-to-head between the two of them.

FIVE-EIGHTHS

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton is consistent with a match-winning quality about him. He is rightly favourite for the Test first five role, but Gatland's choices as support acts will be interesting.

England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson, although retired from international rugby for more than a year, has been tearing it up for Toulon this season and offers Gatland vast experience at the highest level.

With Wales' Rhys Priestland injured and unlikely to be available for Lions selection, England first five Owen Farrell could be the third 10.

HALFBACKS

Mike Phillips, the 2009 Lions Test halfback, has not been in prime form this term, but he still stands head and shoulders above any rival.

England pair Ben Youngs and Danny Care should also make the trip to Australia, meaning no place for Ireland's Conor Murray or experienced Scottish operators Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair.

PROPS

A considerable area of strength for the Lions - and potential Test match dominance Down Under - assuming injuries don't bite and Gatland is able to select from a full hand.

The battle for Test tighthead duty promises to be an intriguing one between Adam Jones and Dan Cole, with former England scrum destroyer Andrew Sheridan likely at loosehead.

Alex Corbisiero and Scotland's Ryan Grant would complete the prop contingent, although Welshman Gethin Jenkins and Ireland's Cian Healy undoubtedly warrant close scrutiny.

HOOKERS

Ireland's Rory Best should be one of the first names on Gatland's Test team sheet, but the two squad support roles would appear to be more open for debate.

England warrior Dylan Hartley has many admirers - but he is accompanied by a dodgy disciplinary record - and Tom Youngs impressed when Hartley was injured during this season's autumn Tests.

Wales, meanwhile, need to start their Six Nations campaign with form hooker Richard Hibbard with Hartley nudging out Youngs, Matthew Rees and Ross Ford battling for a place.

LOCKS

If Irish second-row colossus Paul O'Connell is fully fit following recent back surgery, then the 2009 Lions captain should be on board for the Australia adventure.

Also possible inclusions are the outstanding Scotland lock Richie Gray, the consistently impressive Alun-Wyn Jones, England's efficient Geoff Parling and the prodigiously-talented Wasps prospect Joe Launchbury.

BACK-ROW

Unquestionably the most competitive area of Gatland's squad. Injuries permitting, he is likely to spend more time poring over his back-row options than any other department. Big-name selection casualties are inevitable.

Gatland has made known his desire for specialist openside flankers in Australia. Wales captain Sam Warburton fits that bill, but while Sean O'Brien and Chris Robshaw are perhaps more six-and-and-a-halfs, they appear to be the best of the rest, although Justin Tipuric could be a bolter.

Brilliant Wales blindside Dan Lydiate's return to fitness - probably next month - following serious ankle trouble cannot come soon enough, but among those who could miss out are Stephen Ferris, David Denton, Tom Croft and Ben Morgan.

A possible squad:

Back three: R Kearney (Ireland), A Goode (England), L Halfpenny (Wales), T Bowe (Ireland), G North (Wales), C Ashton (England).

Centres: B O'Driscoll (Ireland), J Davies (Wales), M Tuilagi (England), J Roberts (Wales).

Five-eighths: J Sexton (Ireland), J Wilkinson (England), O Farrell (England).

Halfbacks: M Phillips (Wales), B Youngs (England), D Care (England).

Props: A Sheridan (England), A Corbisiero (England), R Grant (Scotland), A Jones (Wales), D Cole (England).

Hookers: R Best (Ireland), D Hartley (England), R Hibbard (Wales).

Locks: R Gray (Scotland), A-W Jones (Wales), G Parling (England), P O'Connell (Ireland), J Launchbury (England).

Back-row: D Lydiate (Wales), T Wood (England), S O'Brien (Ireland), C Robshaw (England), S Warburton (Wales), J Heaslip (Ireland), T Faletau (Wales).