Lions – The Backs

On Tuesday, we looked at the forwards putting themselves forward for Lions selection.  Today we see which backs should start learning the words to Power of Four, the fondly remembered Lions anthem.

Scrum Half

Already Packed his Spider-Bite Cream: Mike Phillips.  At this juncture, no player is more inked in to the Lions test jersey than the big Welsh number nine.  Not the most technically gifted, but a decent passer, his main strength is his running game and ability to link with his forwards.  Plus, he’s already impressed on a Lions tour.

Work to do: Ben Youngs would be the obvious and desired deputy to Phillips – someone who offers something completely different, and a potential impact replacement late in matches, upping the pace and running tap penalties.  He appears to have recovered his game after a difficult period.  Danny Care mixes the good with the bad, but has had a fine season with Harlequins.  You suspect Gatland would like Conor Murray in the panel as an insurance plan against Phillips, but he needs to show his best form. He needs to show greater speed off the base, but has a good pass once it gets moving.

Any bolters?  Ospreys’ scrum half Rhys Webb is a smashing player, and looks the most capable of making a late burst.

Fly Half

Already Reading His Lonely Planet Guide: Johnny Sexton.  With his goal-kicking yips behind him for Ireland, Johnny Sexton was one of the few successes of the Irish summer tour.  Still not quite as regal in green as in blue, but we suspect Gatland is the sort of coach who’ll cajole the best out of him.  Should be the test starter.

Work to do: We’re still not convinced by Rhys Priestland by a long way.  Gatland seems to be a fan, though, even if he’s taken him off place-kicking duty for Wales.  If Leigh Halfpenny cannot get into the side at full-back ahead of Rob Kearney, it will compromise his test credentials. Toby Flood and Owen Farrell offer slightly more stable talents than the hot-and-cold Welshman, and both will be on hand to provide solid back-up to Sexton should Gatland choose dependable place-kicking over more mercurial abilities.

Any bolters?  A couple.  A certain D. Cipriani will be back on English shores this season with Sale.  Gatland was his one-time mentor back in the day at Wasps.  It remains unlikely that the one-time next big thing will have the discipline and defensive willingness to push for a place on the tour, but how marvellous it would be if he could.  The incumbent next-big-thing, George Ford is another who could make a late dash, but needs to depose Toby Flood at Leicester first.

Centres

Surfboard at the ready: The only centre who looks anything close to nailed-on is Wales’ Big Bopper Jamie Roberts.  We had him in our ‘work to do’ section last year, but he has done plenty of that in the last twelve months.  Hard runner, good hands, when he’s on song he’s close to unplayable; he’ll be a key man for the Lions and nigh on irreplaceable.

Work to do: Can Brian O’Driscoll see out his career with a victorious Lions tour?  He would love nothing more.  The old ledge-bag looked sprightly for Leinster but played a touch fast and loose in New Zealand.  If his body holds together, he’ll surely do enough to make the plane.  Oooooooooooohhh Manu Tuilagi and JJV Davies offer more – how shall we put this? – straight-line tendencies, but both would offer a serious threat to the Aussie gainline.

Any Bolters? Quality inside centres to offer competition to Roberts are thin on the ground, and it’s possible his understudy for Wales, Ashley Beck, will do likewise for the Lions.  Performance in the Pro12 final underlined his quality.

Wings

Wine-tasting guide packed: George North.  There’s no shortage of quality on the wings, with all four countries putting up quality players for examination, but the big, bruising Welshman is top of the bunch.  No bosh-merchant, his skill, distribution and movement belie his monstrous physique.

Work to do: A large field.  From Ireland there’s Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe.  Earls’ ability to play centre could work to his advantage, and he has a Lions tour under his belt.  Bowe excelled in 2009, and is Ireland’s best attacker.  Wales’ other wing Alex Cuthbert (another monster) has timed his rise from obscurity to test class wing impeccably.  Chris Ashton’s star has waned a little, but he’ll be looking to reassert himself at Saracens.  And flying Dutchman (via Scotland) Tim Visser is in with a shout.  He has only one Six Nations to show he can handle international rugby, but he only has the hopes of a nation riding on it, so no pressure, laddie.

Bolters: This is the most bolter-friendly position on the paddock; youngsters can quickly emerge and put themselves in the frame in a short space of time – it’s also a position where confidence and form have the biggest role to play, so Gatland might look past reputation and take a punt on those who are banging in tries.  Christian Wade, Craig Gilroy and Charlie Sharples are just three of many to keep an eye on.

Full Back

Planning a visit to Ayers Rock: Another area of real depth for the Lions, with all four nations putting up a genuine contender.  But Rob Kearney, after his annus mirabilis, is at the top of the tree.  Outstanding performances on last Lions tour won’t be forgotten either.

Work to do: It’ll be at most two from three terrific international players.  Leigh Halfpenny has a mule of a boot and while he isn’t the tallest, is a beautiful runner and dependable catcher.  England’s Ben Foden is a shade off his 2010-11 form, but he is a handsome footballer in every sense of the word.  Already making a bolt is Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, having been eventually let loose for Scotland this Six Nations.  Greased lightning over the turf, his pace would be a real asset.

Any bolters: Felix Jones was mentioned in our comments section this time last year, but injury has been cruel to him.  Gloucester’s lightning-fast Johnny May is an exciting talent, but can he break into the England team to make an impression?

Just Eleven Months To Go

A year out from the tour, the augurs are good.  Wales ran Australia very close in the recent series, and were painfully unlucky to come out on the losing side in the latter two matches.  Surely augmenting that side with a handful of daring Irish, granite-hewn Englishmen, and a giant peroxide-blonde Scot will tilt the balance?  Warren Gatland has already been on one successful, albeit losing, tour and his task will be to deliver a harmonious, happy, competitive squad, similar to 2009.  Therer’s usually little enough you can do on the tactical innovation side in such a short timeframe, so don’t expect too much variation on the Welsh run-hard-run-straight gameplan, with Mike Phillips directing a brutish pack of forwards and Sexton looking to bring the likes of George North and Tim Visser into play as much as possible.  With quality scrummagers, no short of backrow options and plenty of good attacking threats in the backline, this is the Lions’ best chance of a series win since… ooooooh… 1997.  Memo to all: don’t get injured.

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12 Comments

  1. Cena2j

     /  July 12, 2012

    good all realistic choices. I think the bolter of the bolters would be Zebo. If he can put in a good showing for Munster in the early half of the season and make it into HC games with a few tries and maybe make the bench for Ireland, he could be in with a shout. But Deccie might have seen enough from him in New Zealand and we might not see him in Green until Deccie has his P45

    • Yup. As we said, wing is a real bolter-friendly position. Zebo’s had a taste of international rugby and he knows what level he has to get to. He’s got plenty to do to get there, but with a big season of course he could make a bolt.

  2. As far as Lions selection goes, I would like to see Greig Laidlaw play as scrum half more frequently. It is possible that Gatland will consider him there anyway.

  3. Jen

     /  July 12, 2012

    No Scottish 9s or Greig laidlaw at 10? Blair had one of his best tours for a while this summer. Also, tim Visser hasn’t played in a 6nations yet. I’d like to see Stuart Hogg as a bolster for 15, playing with Kearney could improve him immensely.

    • All the names you mention will be somewhere in the selectors’ thoughts – we couldn’t discuss everyone. We mentioned Hoggy and discussed Visser’s lack of international experience. We considered Laidlaw, but we’re not quite sold on him at international level yet. Mike Blair is an interesting one. He’s a very classical scrum-half, which we like, but his form has been hit and miss for a long time. Plus, he was rubbish on the last Lions tour. We’d love to see him put in a big season and get into the reckoning, because when he’s on song, he’s very fluid and a lovely player to watch.

  4. Roycon

     /  July 12, 2012

    Mike Brown had a great season with Harlequins and even got a look in with England again so should be considered. I think its unfair to call Jonathon Davies a hard and straight man. He just happens to be a big guy but probably has better distribution than O’Driscoll, Roberts and Tuilagi.

    • We discussed this yesterday at an internal meeting. No disrespect intended to Davies, who’s a fine player. Threre’s nothing wrong as such with running hard and straight, and Davies has plenty of good attributes – he showed great soccer skills to score a try against Australia in the second test.

  5. Pete

     /  July 12, 2012

    Remember, we look set to play Foden at wing, which will muddy the waters a lot – and give Mike Brown, Alex Goode, Rob Miller and Jonny May the chance to make pitches; all have been in electric from recently.

    Speaking of bolters from England – if Jonathan Joseph can repeat his season for London Irish, and maybe get time in an England backline that believes in passing, he offers something different to the other candidates.

    Good article. I’d do the heretical and leave Kearney at home, and am praying that Mike Phillips falls foul of the French season running late. Also, if Owen Farrell tours, I might cry – I’ll be crossing my fingers that everything suddenly falls into place for Paddy Jackson and he goes on a massive rampage all the way to a Lions place (no pressure on the lad now)

    • We thought Ben Foden was there for his aerial skills – the invariable Garryowen’s from the Steyn’s and Lambie are easier to cope with if you have 2 full-backs on the field … lets see if he stays on the wing come the 6N.

      Re JJ, we hope to see something more than we have seen to date – scoring a few tries against Newcastle does not an international three-quarter make – Manu is too bosh-friendly to play at 12, once he has space he’ll be less inclined to look for contact. On that basis, its Manu at 13, and JJ wing (at best) – he’s a potential bolter but we would be surprised.

      You simply CANNOT leave Bob at home!

  6. JSRF

     /  July 12, 2012

    Would Fitzgerald count as a bolter at this stage? A good run of form post rehab could see him selectd

  7. Roycon

     /  July 13, 2012

    If we are to play a fluid passing game then you’d have to think Kearney will not get his game, even Halpenny might struggle then. It would be between Hogg, Lee Byrne, Brown and Foden with Foden leading at the moment. More than likely (with Gatland selecting) this is not the case and it will be Kearney and Hapenny to travel.

    • Egg Chaser

       /  July 13, 2012

      Leinster play a half decent fluid passing game and Kearney has a lock on the 15 jersey there despite the presence of Isa Nacewa in the squad …..

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