The 37 players who will make up that team were announced on Tuesday, with Sam Warburton named as the captain. To understand why this is a big deal, though, you need to understand what the Lions are all about.
The British Isles (as they were called then) were founded in 1888 as a way of bringing together the cream of the players in what was then the Four Nations championship, initially as a purely commercial venture and then with official sanction to give credibility to the enterprise. The modern day custom is that a Lions side will tour Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in rotation, with one tour every four years. This means that each country is visited once every 12 years or, to put it another way, 2013 is the first time that the Lions have toured Australia since 2001.
It is hard to understate just how much selection means to the players. For most internationals, the very peak that they can hope for is to play for their nation. This is something more, this is recognition that, at this moment in time, you are one of the best players in the world at your position.
Over and above even that accolade is the captaincy of the team. Coach Warren Gatland has plumped for Wales’ skipper Sam Warburton, which is unsurprising as Gatland is not only the Welsh coach, but the man who made Warburton captain there, too. That decision meant disappointment for several others. Brian O’Driscoll, captain on the 2005 tour for all of one minute (he was injured by an illegal tackle and didn’t play again that year), was touted for the role. Of the other contenders, Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip can consider himself lucky to even be in the party given his recent form, whilst the other two British captains in the Six Nations, Kelly Brown of Scotland and England’s Chris Robshaw, don’t make the trip at all.
Even allowing for Gatland’s Welsh connections, the selection of 15 players from that nation in the tour party is surprising. Yes, they have won back to back Six Nations titles, but either this is a move designed to prove just how much he hates Dan Biggar (the only one of the Six Nations regulars not picked) or it is a massive gamble that the cohesion of the party won’t be affected by a split into ‘Welsh’ and ‘Everyone else’ - divisions along regional lines are not by any means unheard of on Lions tours.
As with any tour party, there are surprise selections and surprise omissions. The most baffling of these is a call up for Saracens and England prop Matt Stevens, who retired from international rugby at the end of last season. There doesn’t seem any reason to utilise Stevens over, say, Scotland’s Ryan Grant. In previous years there may have been, due to his ability to play on both sides of the scrum, but the recent change to allow an extra substitute, enabling teams to hold an entire new front row in reserve, and the fact that Wales’ Gethin Jenkins can do the same, means that not even this is a legitimate reason.
The selections of the South Africa-raised Stevens and New Zealand-bred Dylan Hartley and Sean Maitland do suggest that Gatland has been keen to pick players he thinks will thrive on the harder Australian pitches rather than purely on form. Certainly there seems no reason to pick Maitland, who has only five international caps and who didn’t have a standout Six Nations, over exciting finishers such as Ireland’s Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo, whilst Hartley wasn’t even England’s first choice at hooker. Similarly, a relatively inexperienced hooker in England’s Tom Youngs has also been called upon, presumably as he possesses exceptional speed and ball-handling skill for the position, having begun his professional career in the centre.
There are a number of selections almost as baffling as Stevens’, though. If you are going to pick a scrum half prone to fits of wild indiscipline, why not go for England’s occasionally inspirational Danny Care instead of the otherwise mundane Conor Murray of Ireland? How, in a squad which carries only two fly halves, did he not find room for England’s Alex Goode, who can play both there and at full back? And how did Heaslip, who was easily the worst in his position in the Six Nations, gain a spot over two better players (on form at least) in Tom Wood and Johnnie Beattie?
Amid all of this, there are selections which have to be applauded. Jenkins remains the best loose-head prop in Britain, even though he can hardly get a game for his French club side. Tom Croft and Sean O’Brien missed huge chunks of the season through injury, but deserve their places in the 37. England lock Geoff Parling was a rock during their up and down season and although looking undersized brings a cerebral approach to the game which sets him apart from others and gives him the happy knack of being in the right place at the right time. Only Jenkins of these is likely to start when the Test series begins on 22 June, in fact only Parling of the others may even be on the replacements bench,
There are, as you might expect, a mountain of bets available out there to on this tour. The Lions are hot favourites to win at 8/11 with Paddy Power, but that just makes Australia a generous price at 13/10 with Bwin. The Aussies are difficult to beat on their own turf, even more so in a best-of-three series like this. I fancy them to win this 2-1, and you can get 12/5 on that at Ladbrokes for your sports picks.
Warburton has already called - as well he might - for the Lions to go through the tour undefeated, and you can get odds of 8/1 on that at Ladbrokes. Remember, though, that they don’t just play the three matches, there are a number of other games making up the tour, starting with a game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1st and covering all of the major state sides in Australia. ACT Brumbies currently lead the Super 15 competition in the Southern Hemisphere and at 12/1 with Ladbrokes represent the best value bet to end a Lions winning streak, especially as they are the last game before the first Test and could well face a weakened Lions lineup, with key players not being risked before that opening encounter with the Wallabies.
I’m going to end this by going out on a limb and picking my Lions starting 15. There’s plenty that could go wrong in the next few weeks, but my advice is to get your money on these players now as odds will only shorten:
15: Leigh Halfpenny: 1/3 with Paddy Power
14: Alex Cuthbert: 4/5 with Ladbrokes
13: Brian O’Driscoll: 5/4 with Coral
12: Jamie Roberts: 1/5 with Ladbrokes
11: George North: 4/9 with 888.com
10: Jonathan Sexton: 1/9 with Ladbrokes
9: Ben Youngs: 3/1 with Coral
1: Gethin Jenkins: 3/1 with Ladbrokes
2: Dylan Hartley: 7/2 with Boylesports
3: Adam Jones: 2/5 with 888.com
4: Alun-Wun Jones: 8/15 with Coral
5: Ian Evans: 4/1 with BetVictor
6: Tom Croft: 6/4 with Stan James
8: Toby Faletau: 6/4 with Paddy Power
7: Sam Warburton: 1/7 with Stan James
That in turn gives you 10 Welshmen in the starting 15, which will get you odds of 4/5 with Bet365. And although a lot of those betting odds are rather short, don’t forget that you can bet on combinations in a lot of markets, so you can combine to make a profit by picking, say, the centre or back row formations.