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Irish Lions Under The Microscope Ahead of First Test Team Announcement

Irish Lions Under The Microscope Ahead of First Test Team Announcement
By Cian Tracey Updated
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Six games in two and half weeks and the big one is almost upon us. In a few hours time, Warren Gatland will name his starting XV to take on Australia in the opening test of the 2013 series. The defeat to a well drilled Brumbies side on Tuesday should prove to be the perfect tonic for the Lions after five relatively comfortable wins.

The intensity of the opening six games has taken its toll on the injury front with both Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins forced to cry off, while doubts remain over Jamie Roberts and Tommy Bowe. George North, who has been one of the standout players of the tour thus far, has provided Gatland with a timely boost as he looks set to be unleashed against the Wallabies in Brisbane.

Ireland's Lions count remains at ten. With Healy's departure, we were a man down but Simon Zebo's call up as cover for Bowe and North, Ireland still have a healthy representation ahead of the opening test. With a couple of places still up for grabs, I've taken a look at how the Irish have performed in the first six games.

Rory Best

The lineout has been a major Achilles heel for the Lions. Best was a late addition to the squad following 'Hartley-gate'. Much was made of Best's exclusion from the original 37 man squad but his performances so far, suggest that Gatland did have a case in over looking him. His performance against the Brumbies was extremely difficult to watch from an Irish point of view.

Best looks to have played himself out of contention. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

With both Tom Youngs and Richard Hibbard failing to cement their place in the test side, Tuesday's game was a huge opportunity for Best to stake his claim. Having been handed the captaincy by Gatland, the stage was set for the Ulsterman but unfortunately he failed to deliver (in more ways than one). His wayward throwing at the lineout continuously cost the Lions valuable possession as Best heavily contributed to five lost lineouts. Although Hibbard did throw a couple of wobblers himself, the lineout looked much more assured with the Welshman on the pitch.

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Best would have felt confident enough of at least forcing himself into the match day squad but the Lions can ill afford to cough up as much possession to a dangerous Wallabies side.

Prediction: Best to miss out on a place in the match day 23.

Paul O'Connell

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Since making his return from back surgery last April, O'Connell has shown no effects of an injury that at one stage looked like it could prematurely end his career. His storming finish to the season coincided with Munster reaching the Heineken Cup semi final and he has carried that form into the Lions series. A towering performance against the Barbarians was topped with the opening try of the tour.

Gatland has been very wise in his use of the talismanic second row. Since the game in Hong Kong, O'Connell has started just once while making a further appearance from the bench. Having missed the majority of the domestic season, O'Connell comes into the first test as one of the freshest players within the squad. A nailed on starter, O'Connell will be hoping to stamp his authority on this test series and avoid a repeat of his previous tour of South Africa.

Prediction: O'Connell to start. Simple as.

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Sean O'Brien

O'Brien has accounted very well for himself in his first three appearances for the Lions. His now trademark, barnstorming runs have been a constant source of go forward ball. With 41 carries, the Leinster player is one of the top ball carriers in the squad.

He failed to have much of an impact on Tuesday's defeat and was withdrawn early in the second half. But rather than be subbed off early for his performance, his versatility in the back row should mean that O'Brien will take his place on the bench for Saturday's game. Tom Croft looks the likely starter at 6 with Gatland a keen fan of his athletic ability in the lineout.

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Being the keen competitor that O'Brien is, he will undoubtedly be disappointed at having to make do with a place on the bench. However, he could yet have a major say in the test series as his explosiveness from the bench could wreak havoc against a tiring Wallaby defence.

Jamie Heaslip

Make no mistake about it, Heaslip endured a poor Six Nations campaign. Having been handed the captaincy in controversial fashion, the burden appeared too much and consequently his performances on the pitch suffered. However, huge credit must be given to the way in which Heaslip has turned his season around.

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Following the Six Nations, people questioned his ability and whether or not he was in good enough form to tour with the Lions. A dominant display against Biarritz in the Amlin semi-final was followed with another fine display against Stade Francais in the final, while there was still time for Heaslip to impress against Ulster in the Rabo Pro12 final.

Heaslip has a had a remarkable turn in form since the Six Nations. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Heaslip's remarkable and timely turn in form has propelled him right up the pecking order ahead of the first test. In what was always going to be a straight shootout with Toby Faletau, Heaslip appears to be edging their compelling duel. Faletau was one of the only players to emerge from the Brumbies defeat having put in a good display. His stats from the opening six games are quite impressive but Heaslip appears to have edged the Welshman for the number 8 slot.

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Prediction: Heaslip to anchor the scrum with O'Brien to have a major say from the bench.

Conor Murray

While not setting the tour alight just yet, Murray has had a quietly confident start to what is his maiden Lions tour. A try against a weak Combined Country side did wonders for his confidence but he remains behind Mike Phillips in the pecking order.

The similarities between the two have been made time after time but both players offer a different dynamic. Phillips is a powerful ball carrier and will look to break from the base of the ruck at any opportunity. Although Murray likes to do similar, his brisk pass can provide the catalyst to get what is a highly talent back line, moving.

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Murray has looked far more comfortable in coming on as an impact player from the bench which may in fact work in his favour. Barring an injury to Phillips, the Bayonne player was always likely to command the number 9 shirt. Ben Youngs' performance on Tuesday was one of the poorest on show. His pass was not only slow but at times was very sloppy. Gatland has a big call to make on whether he opts for Murray as a like for like replacement from the bench or Youngs, who offers something different but perhaps lacks the consistency.

Prediction: Youngs' variation to pip Murray for a place on the bench for the opening test.

Jonathan Sexton

We have yet to see the best from Sexton but he remains one of, if not the key player within the squad. A hamstring injury suffered in the win over Queensland Reds briefly casted doubts over Sexton's participation in the opening test but thankfully scans revealed it wasn't as serious as the injury picked up against England.

With just two out-halves being brought on tour, Sexton is battling with Owen Farrell for a starting berth in the opening test. However the Leinster player is primed to make a huge statement on this tour. He will have to come to terms with not being the first choice kicker, a situation which although will be alien to Sexton, could act as a blessing in disguise. With Leigh Halfpenny taking on the mantle of first choice place kicker, the stage is set for Sexton to lead this talented back line to victory against Australia.

Prediction: Sexton to start and impress in Saturday's game.

Tommy Bowe

Another Irish player to suffer an injury in Brisbane against the Reds, Bowe's hand injury, like Sexton, was not as serious as first feared and thankfully he has remained with the squad. Having missed the majority of the season through injury, Bowe made a stunning comeback for Ulster. A further knock has halted his progress but Bowe is mentally strong enough to bounce back and have a major say in the test series.

According to Alan Quinlan on this week's 'Second Captains' podcast, Bowe was pushing for a place in the squad for Saturday's game but Gatland appears reluctant to risk him. The Lions play Melbourne Rebels in next week's midweek game - don't be surprised to see Bowe make a welcome return and push for a starting place in the second test.

Simon Zebo

A few eyebrows were raised (through green-tinted glasses) when Sean Maitland was selected ahead of Zebo. Although Maitland has done alright in his four appearances, major question marks remain over his defensive capabilities. Zebo was called up from Ireland's North American tour as cover for Bowe and North. He almost got off to a dream start but he was denied a try by a last ditch tackle after his first touch of the ball.

Zebo went on the have a very impressive debut against the Waratahs and continued that good form in a brief midweek cameo. Continuously cutting in off his wing, looking to get involved in the play, he is exactly the type of winger that Gatland admires. With the news that George North has won his fitness race, Zebo looks likely to miss out this time. With three tries in three games, Cuthbert has been very impressive in going forward and should claim the second wingers spot.

Prediction: Although Zebo's defence is probably stronger, Cuthbert should form an all Welsh back three.

Brian O'Driscoll

Along with Croft, O'Driscoll has played the fewest games (2) of the players that have been available to Gatland since the beginning of the tour. In both appearances, BOD has been imperious. With three tries (albeit against weak opposition) already to his name, the four time Lions tourist has been given enough recovery time to come out firing against Australia on Saturday morning.

O'Driscoll has been used sparingly on tour and is ready for Saturday. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Barring any injury scares, O'Driscoll for me, was always going to be one of the first names on the team sheet. Jonathan Davies has been one of the standout players on tour and he looks set to gain from his compatriot, Roberts' injury. Davies illusive running coupled with the tactical genius of O'Driscoll outside him, looks like a very dangerous centre partnership.

Prediction: O'Driscoll to claim 'his' 13 Lions jersey. Was there ever any doubt?

Rob Kearney

Kearney has endured a very frustrating start to his second Lions tour. Not only has he had to watch on injured from the sideline but he has had to put up with masterful displays from Leigh Halfpenny at full back. A hamstring injury in the build up to the Rabo Pro12 final looked to have ruined his hopes of travelling with the touring party but Gatland rates him so highly that he was willing to allow him the time to recover.

A brief substitute appearance and a start in a highly unconvincing defeat has done nothing for Kearney in terms of pushing Halfpenny for the full back slot. He has however proved to Gatland that he is over his hamstring injury and will be ready and waiting if required.

Prediction: Halfpenny to start with Kearney fit enough to take his place on the bench.

Predicted starting Lions squad for the first test:

Halfpenny; Cuthbert, O'Driscoll, Davies, North; Sexton, Phillips; Vunipola, Youngs, A Jones; Wyn Jones, O'Connell; Croft, Warburton (c), Heaslip.

Subs: Corbisiero, Hibbard, Cole, Parling, O'Brien, Youngs, Farrell, Kearney.

Cian Tracey is a freelance sports journalist currently writing for The Irish Independent, Examiner, The Sun and Balls.ie.

Follow him on Twitter.

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