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Published: Monday November 26, 2012 MYT 10:53:00 AM

Lions selection headaches aplenty for Gatland

CARDIFF: Next year's British and Irish Lions tour to Australia is nothing but gruelling, the 35-strong squad expected to come together in a short space of time before playing six games and three Tests.

Head coach Warren Gatland will take a back seat from his main Wales coaching job during the Six Nations in a bid to scout for potential players to fill the highly cosseted red Lions jersey.

And the Kiwi certainly faces a tough task, as has been proved by the domination of southern hemisphere teams over England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales so far in the autumn series of internationals.

Injuries, non-selection for national set-ups and loss of form all take their toll, which leaves Gatland with a mountain to climb when it comes to drafting 35 players together for the nine games including three tests in Australia next June and July.

"I've just been forming some opinions," said Gatland of his decision to miss Wales' opening November defeats by Argentina and Samoa to take in other internationals as part of his Lions brief.

"At this initial stage it's about going to games, looking at players and trying to establish where players are at the moment and where teams are, too.

"There's a long way to go before final selection and a lot of rugby to be played," said Gatland, who was an assistant coach on the Lions' last tour to South Africa in 2009.

The Wallabies at home are a tough prospect, as shown by Wales' losing three-Test series last summer.

And Australia coach Robbie Deans will hope to have scrum-half Will Genia and openside flanker David Pocock, undoubtedly the country's two best players, back from injury and motoring the home side.

The battle with Pocock in the loose will be key, and at the moment there is only one outstanding number 7 in British rugby and that is Wales captain Sam Warburton, who is just about emerging from an alarming dip in form since the World Cup.

Arguably the best contender for the Lions openside slot is a player who is ignored by England, but who performs fantastically well for Toulon week-in, week-out in the highly competitive Top 14: Steffon Armitage.

Welshman Dan Lydiate and Ireland's Stephen Ferris may both be currently injured, but it will likely be that duo battling to make up the back-row, with Jamie Heaslip and Scotland's Zimbabwe-born David Denton surely in the running for the No 8 shirt.

The boiler room could feature two giants in Scotland's Richie Gray and Perpignan-based Luke Charteris of Wales, but Gatland could also fall back on experienced duo Paul O'Connell and Alun Wyn Jones.

Australia's scrum weaknesses have again been targeted during their tour in the northern hemisphere, but apart from the France game they lost 33-6, it has pretty much held its own.

The Lions' front-row in South Africa was an all-Welsh one of Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins.

Jenkins has fallen behind Andrew Sheridan in the Toulon pecking order, and it would be no surprise to see the former England loosehead prop included if he continues his exceptional form.

Cian Healy of Ireland and England tighthead Dan Cole should also be considered, with Rees, injured Irishman Rory Best and Kiwi-born Englishman Dylan Hartley the potential trio of hookers.

The halfbacks are perhaps the biggest conundrum for Gatland on current form.

Nailing down Genia will be a monumental task, so Gatland might be tempted to go for Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips over the slicker ball passers, with Ireland's Jonny Sexton in the driving seat for the keys for No 10.

The centre combination of Jamie Roberts and veteran Brian O'Driscoll worked well in South Africa, but England's Manu Tuilagi will likely tour for his direct running, alongside fleet-footed Welshman Jonathan Davies.

On current form Leigh Halfpenny of Wales is a shoo-in at full-back, while his two wingmen at national level, Alex Cuthbert and George North, have both performed well.

Ireland's Rob Kearney played the final two Tests in 2009 but is currently injured. Scotland's flying Dutchman Tim Visser and England's rugby league convert Chris Ashton should add spice in their bid to break up a potential all-Welsh back three. - AFP

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