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Three games in & the Lions are taking shape

The injury problems are stacking up for the British & Irish Lions as Tommy Bowe has been ruled out of the tour with a broken bone in his hand, while Manu Tuilagi has suffered a ‘stinger’ to his shoulder.

Both injuries occurred during the Lions hard-fought 22-12 victory over the Queensland Reds this morning and while Tuilagi is expected to be available by Saturday, Bowe is definitely out of the tour, though a replacement has yet to be named.

The news follows the withdrawals of loosehead props Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins; Ryan Grant and Alex Corbisiero have arrived in Brisbane as their replacements.

The injury to Tommy Bowe is a particular concern to the Lions, he had been looking like a likely Test starter on the wing, alongside George North, and started the match against the Reds in outstanding form.

With everyone now having played a match, except the injured Rob Kearney, it is only natural now that thoughts turn to the first Test and which players Gatland will select for that game.

The back three had looked almost certain to be Leigh Halfpenny at full back with Tommy Bowe and George North either side of him. With Bowe injured much now rides on the form and fitness of Rob Kearney.

If Kearney is at his best then it is not inconceivable that he may start at full back with Leigh Halfpenny covering Bowe’s slot on the wing. If not then Alex Cuthbert becomes the favourite, the worry is though that whilst he is an excellent finisher and willing worker, his game is much more limited than Bowe and he may well be exposed positionally in defence. Sean Maitland is the other option and Gatland is a known admirer.

The rest of the backline rather picks itself, Gatland is clearly desperate to start Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts together at some point next week, and they are definitely the favourites to start on the 22nd June for the first Test.

At half back it is much the same story, Jonny Sexton is without doubt the number one fly half, while Mike Phillips is Gatland’s man at scrum half with his physical threat and dominant style. Ben Youngs will provide a high tempo option from the bench though.

The forwards look less straightforward, with hooker and the back row particularly open positions. Mako Vunipola looks the red hot favourite to start at loosehead now, he has been having an outstanding tour and with Jenkins and Healy now at home he is the man to beat.

Hooker is looking like a bit of a problem position for the Lions though, nobody has quite hit their peak yet. However Tom Youngs looked good against the Reds and crucially he hit his lineout jumpers consistently well. Ideally he would be an impact sub but on current form he has to start ahead of Richard Hibbard and Rory Best.

Adam Jones remains the favourite to start at tighthead, Dan Cole will continue to push him hard but Jones has the edge in the scrum and is a proven leader in the squad. Cole will definitely provide an impact from the bench though.

The second row is vaguely open, however what is certain is that Paul O’Connell has completely wrapped up one spot. He was magnificent against the Barbarians but even more impressive was his performance from the bench against the Reds.

He came on with the Lions under serious pressure and produced two excellent turnovers and just exuded an air of calm authority and leadership. Right now he may just be the first name on the teamsheet.

Alongside him, Richie Gray looks the most likely option at the moment. The majesty with which he retrieved the Reds’ restarts was impressive and he puts in a big shift every time. He also provides an excellent lineout target, obviously. Alun Wyn Jones will certainly put him under pressure though, the Welshman has only played one game but he lives and breathes rugby and you can almost guarantee a top class performance in his next match.

The back row is where things get really tough though. The competition for places is just supreme and so much will depend on the game plan of the Lions and even possibly who they expect Australia to select, it is that tight.

However, the easy bit is number eight, Toby Faletau has been playing very well but Jamie Healsip has been magnificent. Ever since the end of the Six Nations, where he was poor, he has improved his performances game after game and continued to do so against the Western Force on Wednesday.

His ball carrying is immense and his Lions experience is invaluable. Faletau will be unlucky to miss out but that is what happens on Lions tours, players push each other to extraordinary lengths but ultimately some guys have to miss out.

To the hard part now though, six and seven. How do you fit five into two, and believe me, it truly is five into two. At six the question, at the moment, really seems to be; do you choose Dan Lydiate, who will tackle anything and everything and allow others around him to flourish, or do you choose Tom Croft, who will do less dirty work than Lydiate but has wing like pace and a real star quality about him, not to mention providing a brilliant lineout option.

The feeling is probably that if Lydiate continues to impress then he will probably get the nod. The work he gets through is astounding and will allow the coaching team a bit more freedom in the other areas of selection. In either case, they will have a top class six.

At seven we have to assume that Sam Warburton will start as captain, however at present he is most definitely behind Justin Tipuric and Sean O’Brien. Tipuric was impressive against the Barbarians and did a great job of slowing ball against the Reds in the short period that he was on the field, however O’Brien is, if anything, playing even better. His all round game against the Force was better than anything seen from him before.

The worry is that it was possibly a bit of a ‘flat track bully’ performance, but we will see more from him as the tour develops. The likelihood is that he will be on the bench for his impact and versatility, but at present he has to be favourite to start.

However, all of the above is based simply on the opening three games of the tour and much will change between now and the 22nd June. However with only three games before the first test, those playing well now have every chance of making it.

Here is our team to start the first Test, it is based purely on performance in the first three games so Rob Kearney was not considered, and whilst Sam Warburton will almost certainly start, he is not included at present.

Fifteen Rugby’s Lions XV for the 1st Test vs Australia (First 3 games only):

15. Leigh Halfpenny 14. Alex Cuthbert 13. Brian O’Driscoll 12. Jamie Roberts 11. George North 10. Jonny Sexton 9. Mike Phillips; 1. Mako Vunipola 2. Tom Youngs 3. Adam Jones 4. Richie Gray 5. Paul O’Connell 6. Dan Lydiate 7. Sean O’Brien 8. Jamie Heaslip.

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