Gatland’s central dilemma

bod roberts
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.

By Chris Francis (@mckrisp)

41 thoughts on “Gatland’s central dilemma

  1. Interesting read, however:

    I don’t think the third back bench spot will be a centre. It leaves things too limited were an injury to occur in the back three. It’s more likely and safer that Farrell will be covering both outhalf and centres, with a back three cover on the bench that could also play 13, like Hogg, or Bowe, or if either of them start they can move in and the replacement goes on the wing.

    Second, completely agree that Tuilagi and Roberts can’t play together, but given the selection for the Force on Wednesday, it looks like Tuilagi’s best chance to be involved will be from the inside centre position, which could be an interesting move from Gatland.

    Lastly, a personal preference is for Davies not to be involved. I don’t think his passing skills are up to the standard required for a professional player, never mind a Lion.

  2. I completely agree that the centres are the most competitive position on tour, but I don’t agree with all your analysis.

    Yes Gatland likes Roberts, but I don’t think he is the only certain starter, I don’t think any of them are. I would personally go for Tuilagi and BOD.

    Also, I don’t think that we will have a sub out of one of these four. For me, Hogg is a definite for the 23 shirt as he is the most versatile player on tour (cover 10 to 15), and he is also a great impact player as he uses place so well.

    I also don’t agree that Gatland has been Welsh centric at all, let alone throwing “very” in there. I would say he has picked the best squad possible other than a couple of 50/50s that are hard to disagree completely with. The only place I would say there is argument to say he was Welsh centric was with his decision for captain, where I think POC was the stand out option.

  3. I agree that Roberts and O’Driscoll should start. They have experience and have both been there and done that.

    I dont see why Tuilagi couldnt be on the bench, for two simple reasons:

    1. His impact in the last 25 (as you said) would be mouth watering
    2. He can, theoretically cover a wing spot if needs be

    Davies is a good player, but Tuilagi just has that little bit of an X-Factor, and will relish playing off more experienced players.

    Some people have said “Well, Davies outplayed Tuilagi in Cardiff”. For those who say that, I would point out that Davies had Jamie Roberts on his inside… Tuilagi had Brad Barritt… it is a lot oeasier to play to potential with a man like that in the 12 jersey

  4. I wouldn’t say Roberts is nailed on just yet – Gatland will be keen to see how Tuilagi plays on Wednesday.

    At the moment, I’d say Roberts offers slightly more in terms of offloading / putting people through gaps and has his nose ahead in terms of selection, but this Force game is a big opportunity for the Englishman.

  5. Good article until the tired old “Gatland’s picked all his Welsh mates” jibe at the end. Give it a rest and get behind the team now.

    I’d go for Roberts and BOD. It was one of the most exciting centre partnerships ever in 2009, both players improving each others game. I would love to see that magic again especially with Roberts’ improved technique and BOD’s “one last tour” mental attitude.

    It would be a shame to not see Tuilagi in the tests but I agree with other commentators that three centres in the 22 is a bit of a luxury.

    1. We’ll definitely see the pair reunited at some stage, perhaps against Quade Cooper and the Reds on Saturday – I’d love to see them in the Test series as well. Their partnership was the highlight of ’09 for me.

    2. I’m not sure it was a jibe Brighty, more just saying that in some of the 50/50 calls Gatland has gone for Welsh guys over others – which he is completely justified in doing, because why wouldn’t you pick people you know you can work with and have done so with in the past? That argument works as well in all walks of life as it does here.

      Anyway, I am really intrigued to see how Tuilagi and BOD go together this week. For me Tuilagi is such a monster – and is capable of things no other player in the world can – that he should really be accommodated somehow. But then the moment I think that, I remember how good Roberts and BOD were together, and I find myself thinking maybe that’s the best combo. As we all know, Lions tours are as much about finding the right combinations as getting your best 15 players on the pitch. It’s a tough one.

  6. Interesting stuff. I think he’ll go Roberts and BOD with Tuilagi on the bench. He’s played a lot of rugby on the wing and is certainly quick enough and may even be a little ‘fresher’ if not asked to carry the ball so much.

    I actually think there will be a lot of Englishmen on the test bench to come on and add speed to the game in the 2nd half. It would be great to see Vunipola, Cole, T Youngs, Croft, B Youngs and Tuilagi all come on to later in the game to stretch the Aussies.

    A Welsh/Irish cocktail to batter Aus into submission feels likely, with that English group to come on and stretch the game.

  7. I think that Tuilagi can be accommodated as a bench man in the tests. Hogg can cover FH if need be. Let’s be honest, we are not likely to be looking at a tactical change of Farrell on for Sexton (I hope) so it would only be as cover for injury.

    I think that the bench should be picked on impact value, not to provide a broad base of injury cover.

    Likewise I can see Croft and Vunipola in very similar roles as impact subs.

  8. Definitely don’t think that Roberts is nailed on, I like Roberts as a player and he always plays well for the lions and will continuously get us over the gainline, but defensive captain? if you run straight at him as Tuilagi did in the 6 nations then he’ll smash you every time, but if you use decoy runners ive come to find he can be quite easily caught out when he has to make a decision?

  9. Definitely don’t think that Roberts is nailed on, I like Roberts as a player and he always plays well for the lions and will continuously get us over the gainline, but defensive captain? if you run straight at him as Tuilagi did in the 6 nations then he’ll smash you every time, but if you use decoy runners ive come to find he can be quite easily caught out when he has to make a decision? I think it will be him and BOD for the tests but i exepct it to be a pretty close run thing.

  10. With only 4 centres I doubt we will see one on the bench. They would have to play 80mins (midweek/weekend) and then 20ish mins for the other game. It’s too much at this level.

    The centres will be covered by North, Bowe, Hogg and whichever 10 is on the bench.

    I don’t think I would be labelling Roberts as a nailed on starter yet either. After all, we haven’t had a chance to see 50% of the centres on tour. Manu and JD2 can both play 12 or 13, and both can offer similar to Roberts. Davies’ left foot kicking may be a factor that pushes his claim.

    I would say that the backrow is up their as being as competitive as the centres. In fact, if people are saying that Roberts is a nailed on starter, then the backrow would be more competitive, as it seems that noone is guaranteed a start.

  11. Agree massively that the centre partnership seems one of the hardest to pick, but Jamie Roberts gauranteed? I’m not so sure.

    For me, it’s got to be down to Roberts, Manu and BOD. I think in an ideal world everyone would want Manu and BOD. But will they work? Guess we will find out in the warm ups. At least with Roberts and BOD you know they work well together.

    AND, if one of the current greatest rugby player in the world says this you cant ignore him…

    “@dewijury: @DanCarter who’s your favourite player on the lions tour this year and why? #DCPC” @Manutuilagi hits & runs bloody hard #DCPC

    1. I just saw that from Carter actually – interesting comment. And whilst Manu obviously shouldn’t be picked because of Carters comment, it does show that he genuinely puts a bit of fear into the SH sides.

      I’m betting if you asked the Aussie guys who you would least like running at you they would say Manu, and for that reason I would play him somewhere, whether its 12 or 13.

  12. I don’t see why Roberts and Tuilagi can’t play together. I think a lot of people are thinking they are similar in that they are both large blokes. But Roberts plays a much more play maker role almost like a 2nd fly half that runs clever lines designed to unleash the players outside him. Tuilagi however runs at the gainline with the sole purpose of smashing through it and reaching the try line, a lot like a winger coming off his wing. In short; Roberts plays like a 12 should, Tuilagi plays like a 13 should.
    If there’s one 12 capable of fully unshackling Tuilagi and getting the most out of him, it’s Roberts (LOL Barritt). He runs perfect lines with perfect timing that usually forces 2-3 tacklers out of position just to stop the man. His excellent strength and offloading is capable of complimenting pretty much any 13 Gatland has available. That’s why I rate Roberts as the best 12 in the world and why I also think he has secured the 12 shirt, he get’s the basic right 100% of the time (but also because he’s the only actual 12 there). As long as Tuilagi remains within offloading distance, he will have a field day.

    1. I’m not so sure I agree. Roberts is a good player but he is not a distributor my any stretch of the imagination. I saw a stat going into the England 6N game that he as made two passes in the previous 6N matches – hardly a distributor or second play maker is it?

      Roberts is the only 12 there, but he is a bosh merchant IMO, he can offload but doesn’t show it enough. I think the key reason I would lean towards having him in my side is because defensively he organizes things really well.

      Personally I hope BOD and Tuilagi hit it off tomorrow and they play; because that is the most exciting pairing.

    2. I would like to see them go together at some point of the tour, although it seems far too one dimensional how do you defend against it? You can’t keep either quiet with one tackler and I just wonder if the need to double team both is going to leave space elsewhere for a Sexton to exploit. I think JR has more attacking threat, guile and skills than Barritt, but it’s fine for Tuilagi to play outside him because he’s the un-droppable human wall?

      It may not be the most likely partnership, but don’t think it’s so preposterous to not take a look at for 30 mins, especially if Manu is being considered for an impact sub role.

      …. The comedy value of a 35 stone centre partnership flattening some Aussies will be a YouTube sensation as well :-)

      1. “The comedy value of a 35 stone centre partnership flattening some Aussies will be a YouTube sensation as well :-)”
        That sounds monumentally appealing. Now I’m sat here praying that Gatland experiments with it for the Reds game. A search party would have to be sent out to find Cooper xD

  13. Don’t think anyone can be nailed on when we’ve only seen one game and one combination play.

    Manu is perfect for Gatland rugby. Time isn’t on his side though. Big ask for a player of his age/experience to be able to excel in unfamiliar positions/combinations to oust one on the more experienced members of the touring party. If he does pick some good lines off Sexton (you would back Sexton to find him) then he can put himself right in the mix though. I hope he does make it because I think we will be a more potent force with him in.

    Don’t agree with the Welsh centric point, if England had made a RWC semi final, won a GS and retained the 6N no one would think twice about there being 15 English on the tour. I didn’t think Warburton was a great appointment because of a perception of bias (amongst other reasons) but on squad selection or game selection I don’t see any evidence of bias. Yes he seems to be going for the same game plan he’s implemented before, but why would you try and come up with something completely new when you only have about 6 weeks with the whole squad to implement it.

    I actually think it’s a real achievement to have the squad together for such a short period of time and have them go out there and implement a clear game plan.

    1. I don’t really have a preference or bias in this debate but to use your justification for the Welsh dominated selection I.e.results from 2011 to present, Eng have one a 6n championship, 2 runners up incl same points tally as the winner in 2013, away draw with S.Africa and home win against NZ were world cup qtr finalists being knocked out by the same side that knocked out Wales. Beyondthe spin you mention above WWales really only had to beat Ire to get to said wc semi and endured a record 8 run losing streak incl 4 against Austrailia.

      I honestly don’t care about the make up of the squad but it really irritates me when people mis use facts or presents a one sided case.

      1. Completely agree with this. I agree with Wales have been slightly better than the other NH teams but not by a lot. I actually think that, other than the Ireland game, Wales were not that great in the world cup. They won the games they should have done in their group, and then lost to SA in the group. Then they lost to France. Why is that so impressive?

        I am not trying to discredit Wales here (cue Brighty jumping in), as I said, they are the best NH side currently, but only just.

        Effectively, the two games they have beaten England in have made the difference in the 6N – does that really outweigh against their poor form in between? I don’t know.

        1. Jacob, I agree. The distance between the teams is not that large, but then the num of diff players is not huge. I would add though that, as with the Aus games Wales lost, the difference is that Wales won the games between them and England, England lost. As people often tell me when assessing Wales performances, it’s the win that counts, not how close the loss was. I don’t entirely agree with that but it has some merit.

          So a leaning towards Wales being better seems fair to me.

          1. Absolutely agree. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t like the comment about Gatland favouring the Welsh as I don’t think it is true. I honestly think he has picked the whole squad on merit. But I also think that Benjit was right to point out that Matts argument was extreme, and suggested Wales were much better than they are.

            So we agree, Wales are slightly better, hence the slight player advantage.

            Still, interesting to see different peoples perceptions and what they value as important. Ie. World cup performance vs 6N vs AIs, or result vs performance as you pointed out Brighty.

            If I’m honest, I normally side with the argument that suits England best, and I am sure everyone does that same!

      2. I hate it too Benjit, so I’d add one more pertinent fact to your list, my addition after the quotes

        “runners up incl same points tally as the winner in 2013” in the deciding match handed a tumping of absolute conviction, intensity and humiliation by the 2013 winners such that every man on the pitch was played off it by his Welsh counterpart…

        1. Touche. Although that fact is mentioned so often on here I didn’t feel the need to repeat it. ;)

      3. I’m English by the way, I’m not spinning some pro-Welsh/anti-English message! Just stating that the team that has performed the best in the big games over the last couple of years is rightly represented by a few more players. I just think too much is being made of the Lions share (appalling pun … sorry) of the squad being Welsh.

        “There are a lot of Welsh”, “Gatland is the Welsh head coach”, “Therefore there must be Welsh bias” is a conclusion for journalists based on what makes a convenient story, scratching around for evidence to support a hypothesis. In my opinion when you look at the facts of the squad selection and team selections thus far I don’t see an evidence of Welsh bias (though I would have preferred POC as captain!). So I therefore disagree “very Welsh centric” point of the article.

        Provided we see a test 23 based on the best performances/combinations on the tour I’ll be happy, regardless of it’s make up.

        1. Completely agree with your comment Matt. Also agree I’d have had POC but it doesn’t bother me that much because I think he’ll play and I’d still have Warburton in my team.

  14. Way, way too early to start picking nailed on players for test spots. Hopefully every spot is still up for grabs. Saw another article saying Roberts was nailed on as well. Yes he’s had one good game for the Lions and hopefully many more to come, but BoD is a special player, although for him I reckon it’s a case of whether the body holds together for the tour and Tuilagi is a beast of a player, still raw in some aspects, but you don’t make huge holes in a kiwi midfield without having something going for you. Let’s wait until we’ve seen a few games before announcing the starters. However as always, a great excuse for a debate, as if one was really needed!

  15. I’d say the favourites are Roberts and BOD. Jonathan Davies might sneak in but he’s lacking the brilliance to create that BOD has. Tuilagi is too one dimensional, Roberts tucked him up like a kipper in the Six Nations. All depends on the games, all of them will probably get injured and we’ll end up with Tiperic and Phillips playing centre very effectively.

    1. Some people really talk a load of rubbish. Manu is one dimensional but Doc Roberts is a creative fulcrum. Roberts had Manu tucked up like a kipper? Really? I thought Wales’ s fwds completly battered England’s which their backs exploited. I don’t think any back could have shone with the platform Eng had thay day.

      1. I don’t recall much happening with the England backs, as they had very little ball to do anything with – apart from the enormous opening carved for Tuilagi at the start of the game, which was a nailed on try – until he dropped it under no Welsh pressure at all.

        A very poor bit of (basic) skills execution on Tuilagi’s part, but couldn’t say that there was anyone near him to be “tucking him up”.

        1. Watch the game again, watch Roberts stop or knock Tuilagi back over and over again. Realise you are wrong.

          Here’s an eay one to get you started:

    2. Manu has given plenty of try scoring offloads and passes this season. Not his primary role and I’m not claiming he’s a visionary distributor to rival BOD, but he has a lot more skill than he is credited for and certainly not one dimensional.

      Roberts did marshal him well in 2013, Roberts also went of injured after attempting to tackle him in 2012. Neither are relevant as they are playing on the same side so lets just see how Manu actually plays. It’s a tough ask for him in an unfamiliar position, an unfamiliar combination and less prep time with the squad. All this pre match talk of tearing lions “limb from limb” is just going to fire him up more and I’m expecting some rampaging runs!

      1. i wouldnt say that it is too unfamiliar for manu. he has played there a few times for tigers and england.

        also, the way that teams play now-a-days the centres often switch for different moves. we saw a move against the Baa Baas for the lions where JD was standing at 12, and he swtiched with Farrell and then offloaded to Roberts, who had been at 13, who was cutting a line.

        i just hope that we do see a bit of passing/offloading from him, because there is no doubt that he creates space and holes for people.

  16. I would like to see Manu and Roberts together, that would be somehting, if it works.

    BOD doesn’t have the outside break anymore although he offers other things, I am looking forward to see the 2 together. BOD on the inside.

    Manu us a starter, this Lions team is lacking on X-Factor, Manu is one of the few player that offers that, both with his big hits and his offensive power.

  17. Got to try the combinations. You won’t know what works until they’ve played together. BoD and Roberts 4 years ago, cudgel and rapier. This time Gatland may go for cudgel and cudgel!

  18. Hi guys,

    Some good points on here in response – Roberts not as nailed on a starter with everyone as I’d assumed in my article. Only natural 12 in the group though IMO – not convinced Manu is a great inside but will be good to see tomorrow’s combination.

    Just to clarify too – certainly was not a dig re: Welsh centric comment, more just pointing out that Gatland’s MO seems to be tried, tested, knows who he can trust – and this is certainly no bad thing.

    Worth pointing out too re: replacement spot, Tuilagi can definitely cover wing – he’s very good there in fact.



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