In a mere 459 days the 2013 British and Irish Lions will prowl out on to the Suncorp Stadium savannah in Brisbane to fulfil their date with destiny.
To some next year’s tour to Australia will be an inconvenient anachronism, a concept that belongs to bygone era, one piece of furniture too many on an already crowded international fixture list.
To others it will be an unashamedly commercial enterprise, a naked excuse to extort thousands of pounds and dollars through travel costs, accommodation tariffs, shirt sales, ticket prices and perhaps even the odd drop of amber nectar.
But to the 40 or so young men who are invited to represent these isles, it will be the pinnacle of their careers. Some might go on to lift Rugby World Cups, some have already won several Grand Slams but nothing fires the imagination like the raging red of a Lions shirt.
Passed down by generations of the game’s greats from Willie John McBride to Bill Beaumont, to Martin Johnson, to Paul O’Connell, the Lions shirt is perhaps the only one in the world that can rival the All Blacks’ for sheer gravitas.
And already the contenders are beginning to jostle for position. Danny Cipriani, a player who has not experienced Test rugby for three years, announced his move to Sale earlier this week and claimed “The 2103 Lions is definitely at the forefront of my mind.”
Even off the field the ducks are being assembled in rows. “I really want Warren to coach the Lions in 2013 and he and I have discussed it,” revealed WRU chief executive Roger Lewis of his triumphant Wales coach Warren Gatland.
Four hundred and fifty-nine days might seem like a lot but in international rugby terms those wishing to join the pantheon of greats, selection is little more than a dozen games away.
Which makes the five that have just gone in the 2012 RBS Six Nations, all the more significant and I’ve used performances over the last couple of months to pick a Lions side to start in Brisbane.
The situation is made especially interesting by England’s renaissance particularly if the pendulum swing back in their direction has any semblance of permanence.
At the start of the championships it looked as though next year’s vintage would be the Red Lions, a squad crammed with Welsh players on the back of their successful World Cup campaign. Indeed you could have counted on the fingers of one finger the number of Englishmen challenging for a starting birth on June 22, 2013. And now Chris Ashton isn’t even the best winger in Northampton.
But that’s certainly not the case any more, however much credit you give the Red Rose boys for their demolition of Ireland last Saturday, what can’t be disputed is that half a dozen of Stuart Lancaster’s men have risen further up the pile.
That is certainly the case in the pack where props Dan Cole and Alex Corbisiero have taken a massive stride forward as Test quality front rowers. Corbisiero in particular has come out equal or in credit from his battles with four of the best tightheads in the game while also impressing with his work rate.
The scrum will be the one area of dominance the Lions will assume against the Wallabies and for this reason I’ve picked the London Irish youngster ahead of the more experienced and busier Gethin Jenkins.
On the right side even Dan Cole’s rediscovery of his mojo cannot displace the imperious Adam Jones. The Welshman’s injury with the Lions in South Africa had a massive bearing on the outcome of the series. Unfortunately there’s no ideal candidate at hooker so once again I’ve looked to attack Australia’s weakness and go for the set-piece excellence of Rory Best ahead of Dylan Hartley’s more rounded footballing skills.
My lone Scot appears in the second row in the mountainous shape of Richie Gray, as solid a front jumper as there is in the northern hemisphere and a player almost absurdly athletic given his dimensions. The try he scored against Ireland where he outpaced then overpowered defenders was quite remarkable for a man of 6ft 10ins and 20st,
Until he got injured Paul O’Connell looked back to something near his best and having also refound his zest is the man I want to see knock Wallabies captain James Horwill out of his composed stride. My captain, however, has to be Sam Warburton, not only for his leadership skills but for his performance against the other out-and-out opensides in RWC 2011. Dan Lydiate will also flourish on the floor and Ben Morgan showed what a powerhouse he is from an advancing scrum last Saturday.
It’s impossible to look beyond Mike Phillips at scrum-half and despite Jonny Sexton’s campaign I have to admit I am mesmerised by Owen Farrell. Nothing fazes this uber-cool 20-year-old.
The Welsh wing partnership of Alex Cuthbert and George North will tenderise the Australia midfield and slice them up out wide and while all around him lost their heads at Twickenham, Ireland’s Rob Kearney stood tall.
Jamie Roberts is the best inside centre by a mile but it was a close call to partner him with Manu Tuilagi instead of compatriot Jonathan Davies.