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Heineken and Amlin semis the final chance for Lions hopefuls

By this time next week we will know the 37 men that Warren Gatland has selected for his British and Irish Lions squad and with the competition for places looking fierce, selection will come right down until the final few hours one would imagine.

It means that this weekend’s Heineken Cup semi finals could have a huge bearing on the final few places in Gatland’s squad, and as such we take a look at some of the key players looking to shine this weekend.

Clermont Auvergne v Munster

Lee Byrne and Nathan Hines are likely to line up at full back and second row for Clermont and while Lee Byrne remains an outsider due to the form of Leigh Halfpenny and Stuart Hogg and the class of Rob Kearney, he is well known by Gatland and Rob Howley the attack/backs coach and was a strong performer in South Africa in 2009.

Hines also impressed in 2009 and only suspension seemed to rob him of the chance to start a test, Gatland and Graham Rowntree are known admirers of the Scottish lock and he has been one of the top performing locks in the Northern Hemisphere this season.

How he fares against Paul O’Connell and Donnacha Ryan in the Munster second row could be key though as it seems unlikely that all three will tour. Ryan was one of the outstanding locks of the Six Nations and this last chance to impress could just help to keep him above some of the in form Welsh locks.

O’Connell, the 2009 captain, has been the man on everyone’s lips of late though. Injured for most of the season, he came back with an absolutely barnstorming performance against Harlequins in the quarter finals. It was a performance that elevated him from an outside bet as a tourist to almost a confirmed test starter in the eyes of many observers, if he turns in another performance like that at the weekend then it could well be that he is a starter in Gatland’s eyes too.

Another in the Munster pack who will be hoping to use this last chance to impress in Peter O’Mahony. O’Mahony filled in for Stephen Ferris in the Irish back row superbly over the Six Nations and while the competition for places in the back row is intense O’Mahony could sneak in with a well timed performance on Saturday.

In the Munster backline Simon Zebo will be looking to show Warren Gatland that his startling form in the opening round of the Six Nations, before injury struck him down for the rest of the tournament, was no flash in the pan and that he is a serious contender for a seat on the plane.

Connor Murray has the welcome boost of being the only major contender for a Lions scrum half slot who will be playing this weekend, giving him a valuable chance to show Gatland his credentials. He looks likely to just miss out at the moment but a strong performance in Montpellier and he could nestle his way into the touring party.

Outside Murray a fourth Lions tour looks like too much for Ronan O’Gara right now, however should he guide his team past this force of nature that is the current Clermont team and into the final then he will become tough to ignore; match winning fly halves always are.

Saracens v Toulon

Speaking of match winning fly halves and guiding your team into the final, Saracens v Toulon features one of the most mouth watering match ups of the tournament as England fly halves past and present line up opposite one another.

Jonny Wilkinson has been is sparkling form for Toulon this season and his performance against Leicester in the quarter final was vintage Wilkinson, while Owen Farrell seems to be England’s heir apparent to Wilkinson; a fearless player and an assured goal kicker.

Gatland has said that he plans to only take two out and out fly halves, and with Sexton almost assured of his place on tour, Farrell seems by far and away the favourite for the second slot, leaving Wilkinson at home.

However should Toulon progress and Wilkinson outclass Farrell then Warren Gatland and his Lieutenants will have some serious thinking to do about their number tens; a mouth watering prospect indeed.

Of course Saracens possess another option at ten, Charlie Hodgson, and it is by no means certain that Farrell will start ahead of him on Sunday. Hodgson could make an interesting alternative for Gatland, his excellent vision and passing could prove a real weapon if Gatland wants to keep the ball in hand.

Elsewhere in the Saracens backline some of their other England stars will want to use this final opportunity to show Gatland that their performances against Wales were just a blip. Chris Ashton is edging back towards form but it will take a monumental performance, and a demonstration that he has corrected his defensive issues, for him to sneak in now.

Alex Goode has done little wrong at full back but with such high quality options from the other Unions it is again probably going to take something special for him to make it.

Brad Barritt could force himself back to the front of Gatland’s mind though, if he can shackle the talents of Bastareaud, Giteau and co then he will further his already strong claims for a place on tour.

In the forwards the battle of the looseheads will be an interesting one from a Lions perspective. Saracens Mako Vunipola is seen as having a strong chance of making the tour after a series of impressive performances and Graham Rowntree is a firm admirer of the man.

On the Toulon side, Welsh tighthead (and Lions certainty) Gethin Jenkins is likely to be on the bench with Englishman Andrew Sheridan likely to start ahead of him. With that in mind it must surely become very different for the Lions coaching staff to ignore Sheridan’s credentials.

In the back row the talk will all be about the man who has dominated even more column inches than his teammate Jonny Wilkinson. Steffon Armitage has been turning in outstanding performances for Toulon for two years now, and with the Lions desperate to have a real fetcher playing at seven, they have one of the form fetchers in the world playing for Toulon in the form of Armitage, if he gets on top on Sunday it could be a game changer for Gatland.

It is perhaps an equally important day for someone in the Saracens back row though. Kelly Brown has been Mr Consistent for a number of years now and this season he has just stepped his level up even more, leading Scotland outstandingly in the Six Nations as he put in more tackles than anyone else in the tournament and then carrying that form over to Saracens. In a competitive position, a big performance could just give him the edge he needs over his rivals.

Amlin Challenge Cup

While the focus of the attention of the fans will be on the Heineken Cup this weekend, Gatland an his coaching staff will also be keeping a very close eye on the Amlin Challenge Cup semi finals.

On Friday night Perpignan play Stade Francais and for James Hook in particular this could be a key game. As we have said, Gatland is planning to take just two fly halves and one ‘utility’ man, Hook is surely the leading utility player in the Home Unions and another commanding performance for Perpignan on Friday could see him sneak into the squad. Luke Charteris and Alasdair Strokosch will also hope to catch the eye.

The main event in the Amlin from a Lions perspective though will be Leinster’s semi final against Biarritz on Saturday. With so many potential Lions in the Leinster ranks Gatland will be hoping for a rip roaring display, particularly from the likes of Heaslip, O’Driscoll and Kearney who have dipped in and out of form this season but are all likely to go.

Sean O’Brien will want to use this as a chance to just close any possible doubts in Gatland’s mind and Cian Healy will want to ease any concerns about his discipline.

Mike Ross will hope that the third tighthead spot is still available, while a big performance from either Sean Cronin or Richardt Strauss at hooker could just nudge them into Gatland’s thinking.

Past Lions Luke Fitzgerald and Gordon D’Arcy are likely to miss out this time around but both will be hoping that they can do enough at least to put them at the front of the queue when it comes to the standby list.

Of course the name on everyone’s lips though is Jonny Sexton; is he fit enough, is his form there? The answer to both questions seems to be yes but a big performance from the Lions leading number ten will send Gatland to sleep on Saturday with a big, big smile on his face.

Captaincy

It seems that Sam Warburton is almost certainly going to be the man announced as Lions captain on Tuesday, particularly after Ladbrokes slashed their odds on him, however a strong performance of the type we saw against Harlequins from Paul O’Connell could see him become only the second man to captain the Lions twice, while Brian O’Driscoll is still not out of the running, despite Warren Gatland having never had a back as his captain.

For now though, the priority for the players is to get their teams into European finals, thoughts of the Lions must be pushed to the back of their minds, for the spectators though it will be fascinating viewing.

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