Phil Edwards thinks he has got the Lions starting XV just right!
One of the most enjoyable pastimes, just weeks before a Lions series, is casting an eye over the predictions of pundits, former players and respected journalists.
What is interesting about their crystal-ball gazing, regarding the starting line-up for the first Test in Brisbane, is that none of the experts can agree. They're usually not even close. I'm sure it's the same for you at work or down the pub with your mates. Never have I known a lead-up to a Lions tour when so few players appear to be "nailed-on" to a Test place.
All my Welsh friends, following their country's convincing and record-breaking win over England, think that at least 19 of the match-day squad of 23 have simply got to hail from the Land of their Fathers. Quite graciously, they don't mind if the kit man is Irish and the coach driver is Scottish. Across the Severn Bridge, thanks to a record win over the All Blacks not that long ago, their English cousins reckon the main bulk of the team to face the Wallabies should consist of players of the Red Rose variety.
The Scots and Irish have less to shout about, but history tells us that the involvement of their compatriots is always vital to the success of any tour. And I'm not just talking about the particularly outstanding contribution of their travelling supporters!
Then there is also the very real possibility that a player, not initially selected for the tour, will be summoned to Australia as an injury replacement and end up featuring in a test squad.
Out on the lash!
In 2001, the last time the Lions ventured into Wallaby territory, Andy Nicol was called up for the third Test in Sydney. Nothing surprising there you might say. However, Andy had just spend the previous three weeks touring the country with some close friends, taking extra care to explore the late night culture and social habits of the locals. In other words he'd just spend 21 days on the lash.
The Lions committee told Andy that they had an injury crisis at scrum-half and that the only two candidates who could possibly be press-ganged into action in time were him and Gareth Edwards. With tongue-in-cheek they said they'd first approached Gareth (then 54), but that he had a slight calf strain. Andy duly volunteered for duty but forgot, in the haze of something or other, to tell his dad. Mr Nicol senior settled down to watch the match at home and almost had a seizure when the camera panned along the line of elite athletes before kick-off, only to settle on a familiar-looking bloke! To the great relief of everyone, especially Andy himself, Matt Dawson managed to make it through to the final whistle.
The 1997 tour to South Africa is another good example of how expectations can come to nought. Most of us at the time expected the England tight five to feature in the first test in Cape Town. In the end, only some bloke called Martin Johnson made it. Tom Smith and Paul Wallace played themselves into the match-day 15, along with Jeremy Davidson who partnered Johno in the engine-room.
During that tour, as I'm sure you remember, Rob Howley got injured and Kyran Bracken was summoned from his honeymoon in the West Indies as cover. Kyran played in one of the mid-week matches and got clattered right where it hurts. His bride asked the Lions doctor, James Robson, whether he could take away the pain but leave the swelling.
All this just goes to show that none of us, not even Warren Gatland, can predict just who will trot out of the tunnel at the Suncorp Stadium on June 22nd behind a bloke carrying a cuddly toy. In the weeks leading up to the first test, guys will play themselves into, and out of, test contention.
Four years ago, when the press contingent arrived in South Africa, we all took part in a quiz in some or other drinking establishment in Johannesburg. We were asked to predict the line-up for the first Test in Durban. The hack that got the most correct answers would win a prize. Several weeks later we were told the results. What do you think the winning score was? Eleven? 12 maybe? Afraid not. It was a measly seven. That's right, in other words Fleet Street's finest got at least half the team totally and utterly wrong!
It all makes my first test team prediction completely pointless. But it's still great fun so I'm going to do it anyway. It's based on the autumn internationals and the whole of the Six Nations, not just the final weekend.
PHIL'S TEST XV
15: Stuart Hogg
14: Leigh Halfpenny
13: Brian O'Driscoll
12: Jamie Roberts
11: George North
10: Jonny Sexton
9: Mike Phillips
1: Cian Healey
2: Tom Youngs
3: Adam Jones
4: Alun-Wyn Jones (C)
5: Jim Hamilton
6: Chris Robshaw
7: Justin Tipuric
8: Jamie Heaslip.
Bench: Dylan Hartley, Gethin Jenkins, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Sam Warburton, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi.