The midfield is the most competitive area of this Lions squad, as Warren Gatland has the luxury of four outstanding centres from which to choose. Jamie Roberts, Brian O’Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Davies all offer very different skill sets, and it is crucial that every one of them is used by Gatland throughout both the midweek and Test matches sensibly so as to get the best out of each.
Arguably, all four could lay down a claim to be deserving of a starting spot for the Test side, and it is very difficult to see how it is going to be decided.
There is one player, however, that is nailed on to start if fit.
Gatland loves Roberts – he is a natural leader predominantly through his consistent and intelligent decision making. He constantly gets across the gain line from first phase possession, and is the defensive captain for a Welsh team that has shown itself to be one of the most organised in this regard anywhere in the world. Add this to the fact that he has already proven himself on a Lions’ tour when in South Africa and it is difficult to see anyone else filling the no. 12 jersey. Roberts seems to grow an inch and run a yard harder with a Lions shirt on, and is the only sure fire starter out of our central Lions.
This leaves three players to go in to one starting berth, and one on the bench.
Jonathan Davies laid down very strong early claims in Hong Kong, as he operated within what is now one of the most natural understandings of any midfield pairing in the world alongside Roberts. Davies is the ying to Roberts’ yang; a solid all rounder is how he appears, but one with a flair that surprises those he is up against. He doesn’t look like he should be able to get one over opposite numbers as easily as it seems he can. He has a quickness of thought and understanding of the movement of those around him that makes him deceptively dangerous. There were a couple of beautiful swerves of his body in the game against the Barbarians on Saturday that meant that however hard Casey Laulala went into the tackle he was already beaten.
This type of play, however, is something that Brian O’Driscoll has been known for throughout his career. BOD is still, even in the last years of his wonderful career, a devastating player because of the natural way in which he is able to bamboozle opposite numbers, and take full advantage of any mismatch he is up against. He still has a turn of pace in his first few yards, is an incredibly strong man in a deceptively stocky package and has the nous and technique to act as an extra flanker at the breakdown.
And so we come to big Manu. He has shown for England and the Tigers now over a sustained period of time and against the best players that he is up to this level of rugby, no matter the slight sneering tone of some of the press. He excites me like no other player on the tour purely through the brutality with which he plays the game, and the impact he is able to make on tired defences. He is a brute, and is even stronger a runner with ball in hand than Roberts, and the thought of him coming on with 25 minutes remaining to take advantage of weak tackles in the open spaces and hard grounds of Australia is so convincing.
I have Roberts to start at inside centre, Manu to come off the bench for one of the other two. I don’t think you can have them both – Roberts and Tuilagi – playing from the start together, and the extra subtlety that Davies and BOD have means one of them must start. Also, the replacement spot should be for someone to impact the game, not close it down which has to be in the Leicester man’s favour.
Davies has a kicking game that is superior to O’Driscoll’s and would offer the team an excellent option as a leftie to clear the ball in tight spaces when such a tactic is required. O’Driscoll is the most experienced man on the tour though and for that, along with the fact that he and Roberts struck up such a good relationship on the 2009 South Africa tour, he just gets the nod.
Gatland has been very Welsh centric though, so we’ll see what he decides. Whatever his choice, it is a headache he will be more than happy to have.