So who'd be in the pride if the Lions were ready to roar into action right now?
IT'S the Lions team that will probably never take the field...but all the same, as 2014 draws to a close it is too tempting not to consider who would be the pick of Welsh, English, Irish and Scottish players were the 2017 series against New Zealand beginning next week.
Some of the following names will undoubtedly wear the famous fourquartered crest in three years' time, others will fall by the wayside on the grounds of form or injury.
But debating hypothetical Lions teams - and coaching staff - is one of the pleasures of being a rugby connoisseur.
The following outfit is chosen on the premise of it being picked immediately and on the basis of everyone being available.
And while we're never slow to bang the drum of our Welsh sporting heroes, we've tried to be as dispassionate as possible with our selections.
The proof is that rather than the 10 Wales stars who carried the Lions home in the decisive third Test against Australia last year, only five make the cut here.
15 Rob Kearney The Irishman struggled with injury on the 2013 tour and never got a look-in with Leigh Halfpenny in the form of his life. But Kearney, with his rangy athleticism and Gaelic football-like skills, is back to his best and has been brilliant throughout a great autumn for Ireland. His counter-attacking threat is something Halfpenny must build into his game.
14 Tommy Bowe The former Osprey has always been a class act, but is another member of the Irish elite who is back fit and firing. Great vision, skill, awareness of what is around him and a nose for the try-line. Experience puts him out on his own for this jersey. Scored against both the Aussies and the Springboks this autumn.
13 Manu Tuilagi Stuart Lancaster has singled out the currently-injured Leicester powerhouse as the most critical element that he needs to add for the Six Nations campaign. That highlights what he can bring and his X-factor, power and pace means he edges out Jonathan Davies for the outside-centre berth.
12 Jamie Roberts Partnering the burly Welshman with Tuilagi will bring accusations of a lack of creativity, but both men are ferocious gain-line merchants and there is enough ball-playing skill around them elsewhere in the back line to make up for it. Roberts is out on his own as a clear choice here.
11 George North Still has deficiencies defensively and under the high ball, but is rightly seen as one of the game's emerging superstars with his blockbuster running and almost freakish physique. North beats Scotland's Tim Visser, England's Jonny May and Irishman Simon Zebo.
10 Jonny Sexton For all that Dan Biggar had an impressive autumn, Sexton is out on his own as the premier fly-half in the northern hemisphere. He was a major influence this autumn for Ireland, slotting 12 out of 13 attempts at goal and navigating the Emerald Isle ship with class and assuredness.
9 Conor Murray The Munsterman did have a drop off in form, but like so many of his Irish colleagues has come through that and is back to his peak. The demise of Mike Phillips and Danny Care gives Murray a free run here, even more so given that Sexton is at fly-half.
North 1 Cian Healy Missed the autumn through injury, but he gives almost a fourth back row option with his ball-carrying threat and ability to produce turnover ball. He's solid in the scrum as well, so he ticks all the boxes and keeps out inconsistent Gethin Jenkins and in-form Englishman Joe Marler.
2 Dylan Hartley Not everybody's cup of tea this side of the Severn Bridge, but a proven class performer at Test level. His spiky temperament cost him a place on the last Lions tour, but he gets the nod over Richard Hibbard purely on his ability to regularly find his jumpers in the lineout. England are arguably the best in the world in this department at tghis present time.
3 Samson Lee Well, even Adam Jones has said Lee will be in the 2017 party and he gets into this one on the basis of a brilliant autumn with captain Sam Warburton naming him the player of the series for Wales. Ireland's Mike Ross would have a strong claim as would England's Dan Cole when he's fit and firing. But we're going with Lee.
4 Alun Wyn Jones He's a nailed-on starter for Wales and would be the same in a Lions outfit as well. Go back a year and the inspirational lock appeared jaded. But he's anything but at the moment. Gets the nod over both Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, as well as Scotland's Jonny Gray.
5 Paul O'Connell There will be cries that he is over the hill, but not on the evidence of the November Tests, he isn't. Schmidt has been credited with turning Irish fortunes around, but O'Connell has been at the vanguard of all that on the park. Keeps on going and still the man to oust.
6 Peter O'Mahony Fantastic Six Nations last season and maintaining that level.
He gets through an extraordinary amount of ugly donkley work which allows others to shine and is as abrasive and competitive as they come.
Dan Lydiate started the last Lions Test, but O'Mahony is comfortably ahead these days.
7 Sam Warburton The Wales skipper has had his critics, but he showed what a world-class operator he is this autumn with a couple of openside masterclasses against the best.
Still a fearsome breakdown customer and his work rate and wiry physicality is a huge attribute. Beats Chris Robshaw easily as well as the brilliant and versatile Sean O'Brien.
Oh, and Steffon Armitage.
8 Ben Morgan Fans of Taulupe Faletau won't like this, but there's something about Morgan. He's the archetypal impact player, but no longer these days off the bench. He gets the nod over his England colleague Billy Vunipola after an absolutely outstanding autumn campaign where he left the Saracens man standing.
AND THE COACHES....
Head coach: Joe Schmidt There will be those who say that, having presided over a winning series already, Warren Gatland should get another go.
But Schmidt appears to be head and shoulders above his northern hemisphere peers at present in terms of innovation on and off the field.
He is the stand-out candidate.
Forwards: Vern Cotter Like Schmidt, a Kiwi, and he has got off to a fine start in charge of Scotland. The former No.8 coached the forwards at Canterbury Crusaders before going on to Clermont, who didn't have a bad pack.
Defence: Shaun Edwards How ironic would it be if Edwards, left out last time by his pal Gatland, got the nod from a different boss this time? The former rugby league man is still outstanding at what he does and the number of tries Wales conceded this autumn did no justice to their defensive tightness.
Backs: Gregor Townsend First-choice fly-half on the victorious 1997 tour to South Africa, clearly has fresh ideas and making real waves in charge of a resurgent Glasgow side.
The former Scottish star would be seen as a progressive choice with an eye to the future.
Two contenders for the Lions in 2017, Samson Lee (left) and flying machine George North
Sam Warburton would have a strong shout for a Lions place in anyone's book, but the likes of Ireland's Sean O'Brien and England's Chris Robshaw may beg to differ BEN EVANS/HUW EVANS AGENCY
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|Publication:||South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Dec 5, 2014|
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