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Premiership Rugby

The English Lions?

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

While the World Cup is undoubtedly the biggest prize in rugby, few would argue that a Lions tour also ranks up there as one of the ultimate events in world rugby.

The Wallabies, the last of the southern hemisphere giants to have faced the Lions, managed a 2-1 series triumph in 2001, with New Zealand next on the Lions' fixture list in 2005.

Yes, 2005 is still a long way away, but if we had to compile a Lions team right now, most of the starting XV would be comprised of England players, with skipper Martin Johnson once again a shoo-in for the captaincy.

Of course, Johnson has indicated that the tour of Australia was his last for the Lions, but if a Lions side were to leave British and Irish shores this year, the England captain would be the first man to board the planes.

Naturally, Johnson would expect himself to be surrounded by many of his England team-mates, especially up front, while the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Will Greenwood and Jason Robinson would form the core of the backline.

Ireland's inspirational hooker Keith Wood was always the first name down on a Lions team sheet, but with his recent inactivity, England's Steve Thompson would seriously come into the reckoning in the No.2 jumper.

Phil Vickery is a must at tighthead, with his countryman Julian White a possible back-up, while at loosehead prop Scotland's Tom Smith would probably mess up the England monopoly in the engine room.

Smith, who missed Scotland's tour of South Africa after breaking a toe while suffering an epileptic fit, toured SA and Australia with the Lions in 1997 and 2001. He is a must for any Lions touring squad, although Trevor Woodman, on current form, would run him close in the Test side.

Ben Kay had a relatively quiet 2003 Test season, but his athleticism and strength – and his superb understanding with Johnson – makes him a strong possibility to partner Johnson in the second row.

Another England lock, Bath's Danny Grewcock, would come into the equation at lock, while non-Englishman, Scott Murray and Nathan Hines (both Scotland), and Malcolm O'Kelly (Ireland) would not embarrass any Lions side.

Lawrence Dallaglio's form in Australasia makes him a must for the No.8 jumper, his power and skill getting him over the advantage virtually every time he touched the ball against New Zealand and Australia.

He was a star for Wasps during their 2002/03 Zurich Premiership triumph, and his performances against the All Blacks and Wallabies were some of the best he has produced with the England Rose on his chest.

Richard Hill is another man that picks himself. The reliable Saracens player is a pillar of strength for England, but yet he never makes a fuss as he gets on with his job week in and week out.

Neil Back was beaten to the ball by Wallaby openside Phil Waugh (effectively the second-choice No.7 in Australia), but he fits into the England pattern, and has played a lot of rugby with Dallaglio, Hill and Johnson. With Lewis Moody still out injured he has no real challengers in England.

Scrum-half is fairly open after the retirement of Wales star Rob Howley. with the English duo of Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken likely to scrap it out for the rights to the Lions No.9 jumper as they do with England.

Ireland's Peter Stringer has a sweet pass and Scotland skipper Bryan Redpath is a gritty character, with an outstanding pass.

Jonny Wilkinson is the only option at fly-half, with Ireland's David Humphreys and Ronan O'Gara, along with Wales's Stephen Jones the only realistic options as his back-up.

Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll would be the first name down in the Lions' midfield, with some competition for England's Will Greenwood, although he and B.O.D would compliment each other well. Mike Tindall is a safe option – and he was superb against New Zealand and Australia, especially defensively – but despite O'Driscoll's recent inactivity he gets our nod.

Out wide two names stand out – that of England's flyers Jason Robinson, who can also play at fullback, and the powerful Ben Cohen. Ireland wing Denis Hickie would certainly come into the equation as back-up player.

Robinson did not have many opportunities on attack against New Zealand and Australia, but he was defensively sound, while Cohen took his few chances, scoring a breathtaking try against the Wallabies to confirm his standing as one of the better wingers in world rugby.

Josh Lewsey remains an option in the last line of defence, but the foot-balling skills of Geordan Murphy break up the possibilities of an all-England back three.

A possible Lions starting XV: 15 Geordan Murphy, 14 Jason Robinson, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Will Greenwood, 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Matt Dawson, 8 Lawrence Dallaglio, 7 Neil Back, 6 Richard Hill, 5 Scott Murray, 4 Martin Johnson (captain), 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Steve Thompson, 1 Trevor Woodman.

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