Liiiiiiions – The Back Division

‘Immortality’ is just 24 hours away according to the Skyhype machine.  You don’t even have to play well to be immortal these days, just getting named on a touring panel and playing a few non-test games in Australia on Wednesday nights is apparently enough.  But then we all know the truth – the endless speculation and selection of the squad, and ultimately of the test team is what the Lions is all about, as opposed to the matches, which the Lions almost always lose anyway.  So, with that in mind, on with the show…

Scrum Half: Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs, Conor Murray

The only certainty here is that Mike Phillips is traveling.  In spite of mucking around in the lower end of the Top 14, he appears able to show his class when the occasion demands it.  His performance against England in the Six Nations was a reminder that no other European scrum-half can dominate matches like he does.  Outside of Phillips, things get tricky. It looks like two from four between Greig Laidlaw, Conor Murray and the two Englishmen, Danny Care and Ben Youngs.  It all rather depends on what Gatland is looking for to compliment Phillips, who will doubtless start the test matches.  A like-for-like replacement?  That’d be Murray.  A totally different player to provide a Plan B?  Try Ben Youngs, who’s all about tempo.  An impact substitute?  Danny Care, who excels against tiring defences, would fit the bill.  Or someone who can provide versatility and cover 10 in midweek games?  Greig Laidlaw is the man.  We got a touch overexcited a few weeks back and proclaimed Care our test staring outhalf, prompting him into a series of eye-wateringly bad performances.  He may now miss out to his compatriot Youngs.  Conor Murray’s recent form probably just squeezes him onto the plane.

Outhalf: Jonny Sexton, Owen Farrell, James Hook

Jonny Sexton has been de facto test starting 10 for some time, and has hit form promptly on his return from injury.  Options to back him up have been troublingly lacking since Rhys Priestland went from crisis to injury – with the exception of the glorious, un-ageing Jonny Wilkinson. If Toulon had any notion of releasing their prize asset for a muckaround against New South Wales Country to give him a chance to prove his fitness to Graham Rowntree, he’d be on the plane. But they won’t, and he won’t be either.

Owen Farrell seems the likely beneficiary, despite his vast shortcomings as a fly-half.  On Sunday, one canny tweeter noted that he was the third best Lions-eligible fly-half on the pitch in Saracens’ gloomy defeat to Toulon.  He will be a fortunate tourist – it’s mad that an extra week watching videos of Gareth Edwards is considered better preparation than a Top 14 final, but hey, there you go.  With only two dedicated 10s traveling, a utility player will probably be included in the touring party.  The obvious name is James Hook, and Sky were only too happy to turn Friday night’s Amlin semi-final into the ‘Will James Hook Go On The Lions Show’.  Hook can play 10, 12, 13 and 15, has Lions experience, and speaks with a Welsh lilt – he fits the bill. He’s under pressure after an impressive late dash from Ian Madigan, but the Leinsterman may just miss out due to lack of experience, though he might be first reserve.

Centres: Jamie Roberts, Ooooooooooooooohh Brad Barritt, Brian O’Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi

Jamie Roberts, once fit, is a guaranteed starter, and there are a lack of test class options to back him up.  Brad Barritt is an iron-clad defender and little more, and will have ‘midweek’ written all over him.  Outside, it’s two from three between O’Driscoll, Tuilagi and the resurgent Jonathan Davies.  O’Driscoll’s leadership, class and partnership with Roberts are surely worth a last hurrah.  His form for Leinster is excellent.  Take your pick between Davies and Manu; we’d lean slightly towards the Ashton-lamper – and not just for that, his power and eye for a gap will discommode the Wallabies more than Davies defence and intelligent lines. Stephen Jones flew the highly interesting kite that BOD was being considering as the Test 12 – if that is the case, and with Hook in the squad, Davies might squeeze out Barritt.

Wings: Tommy Bowe, George North, Alex Cuthbert, Sean Maitland

An area of no little depth.  North will be a Lion, the rest are uncertain.  His compatriot Cuthbert mixed the downright awful with the outstanding in the Six Nations.  He can be a defensive liability or unplayable in attack, sometimes both in the same match.  Sean Maitland oozes Kiwi class and is at the core of Glasgow’s superb finish to the season.  Bowe has looked pin-sharp since returning and is proven class.  He probably just – just! – edges out Simon Zebo, who is a touch unlucky – he picked a bad time to look nervous on Saturday, but he’s probably only one injury from a call-up.  Tim Visser, an out of form Chris Ashton and a fastman like Cristian Wade are probably on the radar but just outside the squad.

Full Back: Stuart Hogg, Lee 0.5p

Rob Kearney excelled on tour in 2009, and was so good in 2012 that it seemed unthinkable he wouldn’t be on the tour.  His claims are looking shaky right now, and he is relying on Gatland bringing three specialist 15s.  Ahead of him Lee 0.5p was Six Nations player of the championship and Hogg is greased lightning and made for the hard Antipodean grounds.  Behind in the queue are a bunch of Englishmen; Goode, Brown and Ben Foden, another player who at his best would be a shoo-in, but is out of the picture.

For those not selected, it’s worth remembering that close to double figures of players were flown out as replacements in 2009, so all is not lost.  Modern rugby being as it is, a handful of players will suffer a heartbreaking injury between now and the opening test.  In 2009, Tom Croft was not even named in the original squad, with Alan Quinlan preferred, but we all know what happened to Quinny (remember it’s no fun being cited, folks), and in the end Crofty started all three tests and scored two tries in the first.  So the likes of Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo might get out there yet.

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22 Comments

  1. I’d actually be considering Stuart Olding for a centre berth, as I haven’t been impressed by Jamie Roberts at all this season (bar getting a medical degree while boshing up the midfield). He and Madigan would probably be my two wildcards/bolters in the backs.

  2. Rather enjoyed that allusion to Quinlan’s appraisal of c*te-gate

  3. You may anger Munster fans with no Zebo but I agree with most of the squad. I’m surprised Murray got in, Gatland might like him as a sort of straight swap for Phillips though

  4. jojo

     /  April 29, 2013

    not sure about barrett, wonder whether he will go for madigan as utility back, make all those mid week games a lot more exciting. hook and farrell were so poor with the boot (though TMO’s helped hook, his kicking was still poor) , madigans slotting everything.
    Why Gatland would not bring Wilkinson though is beyond me, am i right in saying all he would miss is the barbarians match? if sexton got injured I’d be quite assured with him coming on. Zebo might get brought for that X factor. Not confident that Bowe has done enough.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  April 29, 2013

      Wilko is utterly ordinary, playing behind a massive Toulon pack and with Gits and Basteraud outside him you’d expect something more than game management. Loads of better 10’s out there.

      • Like who?

        • Leinsterlion

           /  April 29, 2013

          Burns, Madigan, Biggar, Flood offer oodles more on attack, and can play high tempo on the gainline, Farrell, ROG, Steenson, Myler, Hodgson are all on at least a par with him if not as defensively proficient in some cases . He is in an armchair with guaranteed front foot ball, yet he struggles to generate anything or play a high tempo game on a consistent basis. Sure he can close out tight games, but the reason they are tight is because he cant kill them off by using his backs.
          Watching him against Sarries and during the top 14 is like watching France under Laporte and some of the stuff we played under EOS and Kidders, kicking possession away and struggling to get your backs over the gainline. The Toulon/Toulouse game was a great example of this, it was a kicking duel between him and Beauxis(who literally has nothing other than a massive boot). This “contest” featured myopic outhalves sitting in the pocket launching bombs downfield and when in range attempting drop goals, when you are marginally outshone by Beauxis, I think the writing is on the wall.
          If Danny Cipriani didnt get hit by a bus I would have included him too(notsrs). Wilko is a shadow of the player he was in 03, he cant rise above the players around him other then for drop goals. Taking him on tour would be a kick in the teeth for progressive rugby and to all young outhalves aspiring to play attacking rugby, we might as well bring ROG to back him up, put out a gargantuan pack and massive backs and bosh our way upfield in range for drop goals, rinse-cycle and repeat.

          • Gareth Steenson and Stephen Myler are on a par with Jonny Wilkinson? Wow .. just wow!!

          • Leinsterlion

             /  April 29, 2013

            In that they are game managers, nothing more. Wilko is done. He’s finished as a top level player. Playing with Basteraud and gits and a monster pack and he still cant do anything, 2003 was ten years ago, deal with it.

    • Barritt is probably the best defensive 12 in the NH, so if we’re leaking tries and Roberts gets injured he’d probably be a decent pick.

      I think the point isn’t so much what match you miss, but you’re missing out on a lot of the team-buildilng exercises or whatever to help bring the squad together at the start of the tour. After all of Gatland’s talk of wanting players on board from the start of the tour, suddenly parachuting Wilkinson (or any of the Lions potentials in Clermont/Toulon) in may cause some other players to grumble.

      I think Zebo may go just to bring something different on the wing, especially if Gatland goes with North/Cuthbert. I think Tommy’s done enough in the games he’s been given, a decent cameo in a poor Ulster performance, plus try-scoring appearances in his first two full games back (albeit against the Dragons and Connacht) shows he’s still hungry enough for the ball and can still find the line.

  5. Leinsterlion

     /  April 29, 2013

    Seems about right WOC, although I hope Gatty brings Maddog, Byrne (and Wade for the midweek) to add some zip to the back division. No outstanding 12’s, although if Drico plays that mightn’t be problem, he can create space and make ordinary players look great(Jamo in 09). 36 would be a good tourist if lacking in boshability, he offers some playmaking ability.
    My imaginary backline: Youngs, Sexton, North, Brad, Drico, Maitland, Byrne.
    No need for Halfpenny to start when you have Sexton taking the kicks. No nailed on starters apart from Sexton and North in the backs imo, too hard to guess what way gatty will go.

    • termagant

       /  April 29, 2013

      What is this nonsense about Maitland ?- the guy is so ordinary, I’m nodding off just trying to remember who he is. Lions? He wouldn’t even get on the bench for Ulster ffs. Bizarre.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  April 29, 2013

        Look at him playing in Nz with quality players, hes a class act, slightly off All Black quality, but easliy one of the best all round wingers who qualify for the Lions. Who else would you pick? Kick and chaser and good in a straight line Zebo? Come off it mate.

        • TERMAGANT

           /  April 29, 2013

          er, what about the best right wing in the NH by a country mile who can also play centre, who has done it all, including oh yes a Lions tour where everyone agreed he proved himself to be utterly world class, mmm?

          Not to mention he is actually a proper member of one of the home countries instead of a All Black reject with a Scottish granny.

          Oh and by the way, Halfpenny is absolute quality with an incredible will to win. Byrne? Used to be quite good in a ho,hum kind of way many years ago. You come off it, mate – you’ll be the only one dreaming of Brad Barritt in five years time!

          • Leinsterlion

             /  April 29, 2013

            Bowe has to earn his position, he coming off an injury with little form to work from. Other than that I would have him in the team. Maitland is the form pick, he’s quality.
            Who else would you have at 12? The only other option is 36,Roberts is horribly out of form, Barritt hasnt put a foot wrong, what can you fault him for? Having Tualagi outside stunting the attack? That wasnt his fault, a Barrit/Drico axis is the form selection, unless you want to throw Madigan in there.

  6. Yeah I wonder how much Halfpenny’s clutch behind a kicking tee (conspicuous in its absence when it came to putting Wales in a World Cup final, as an aside) has shaped this perception of him being the best fullback in the world, or Europe anyway. I seem to remember him being made look a total wanker against Leinster last October – by DAVE Kearney (a certain favourite for the Lions captaincy also played like an utter mug that evening). I know he pops up with a few tries here and there, but no more so than Rob. I admit I’m biased towards all things Irish, but I just wonder if Halfpenny’s game will have the same gloss when he isn’t handed the kicking duties.

  7. Interesting too see ye have omitted Zebo. I felt he played poorly on Saturday but was up one of the best wingers in Europe in my opinion. He also was always Munster’s get out of jail card basically anytime somebody was caught in position they shifted it to Zebo as quickly as possible……….. that won’t be the case with the Lions when he is surrounded by world class players so I will still think he will tour especially given he can cover fifteen.

    • Yeah, we really really like Zebo, he seems a great fellow and would do very well on the tour. I think he’s just outside the squad and unlucky. I just have a feeling Gatland will go for Bowe and one of the Scottish wings (by which I mean Dutch and Kiwi!). It’s tough on Zebo, but he could get out there yet.

  8. Saul Evans

     /  April 30, 2013

    Jesus Christ some of the biased one eyed views in here are hilarious. 1/2 penny hasn’t missed a tackle in the 6 nations in 3.5 years! He made about 2 minor errors in the whole of the 6 nations, and scores a good slice of Wales’s test tries. He is so far ahead of anyone else in the NH it’s not even a discussion….and you get fools on this board who think he not all that….but donkey Murrey should make the cut….. Class

    • Ys 0.5p is a defensive animal. He’s terrific. I think he underwhelms slightly in his counter-attacking game, which isn’t all that eyecatching, but he’s at the top of the tree for full-back dutues for sure.

  9. Mary Hinge

     /  April 30, 2013

    Wonder why Gats didn’t consult with LeinsterLion? His selection would have been so much more complete.

  10. ehhweasel

     /  April 30, 2013

    Very disappointing selection. No outside bets, just a steady eddie squad which is a complete waste considering they’re definitely going to get beaten anyway.

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