Last weekend, the rugby community received the sad news of Tom Youngs’ wife Tiffany’s terminal illness. As a result, Ben Youngs has understandably withdrawn himself from the Lions tour to be with his family during this very challenging time. My thoughts are with the Youngs family.
In his place, Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw will join the touring party as the third scrum half. The circumstances of this change are immensely sad, and certainly not the way Laidlaw would have envisioned his Lions call up. Laidlaw though is a class scrum half and his form prior to injury in the Six Nations warrants his place with the Lions.
He is, however, a very different scrum half to Ben Youngs – he doesn’t have the pace and sniping ability of the Leicester Tiger – what he does have is excellent game management and leadership abilities. His inclusion also changes things because it gives Warren Gatland a certain tactical flexibility, due to Laidlaw’s greater playmaking skills and ability to play at 10.
Because of this it also resurrects the possibility of the Lions operating with twin playmakers in the 10/12 positions: i.e. Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell both lining up to face the All Blacks on June 24th.
This selection and game plan was widely popular before the squad announcement – the view being that Gatland should mimic the England team and operate with the two fly halves in tandem. However, when the squad was announced, Gatland stressed Farrell was named as one of three fly halves (despite what the Lions’ website may say), and alongside him he picked four specialist centres and two utility backs who play centre. This suggests he was not considering Farrell as a 12.
Farrell and Sexton are both unlikely to be available right at the start of the tour – the first game is the New Zealand Provincial Union XV on 3rd June and the finals of the Premiership and Pro12 are on 27th May. All three fly halves’ teams may have made it into the league playoffs but I am taking into account respective form of Leinster, Saracens and Ospreys. This will limit any possible training time the pair would have had prior to the Lions’ run of fixtures.
The lack of fly halves meant two of the three would have been involved in every game – one to start and one on the bench. Then there is the chaotic schedule; the longest period between two matches is four days. It is unrealistic to expect a player (say Farrell) to play a full game in the 12 shirt and then line up as the fly half bench cover three days later. Should the starting 10 get injured early, he could face the hazardous risk of playing two full games in four days.
On the previous tour, Stuart Hogg offered fly half cover, but given he will likely be the starting fullback for the test team, is Gatland going to risk him in a midweek side?
What this suggests is that Gatland was not considering the Sexton/Farrell axis as a realistic option for the tests. We know Gatland favours a big ball carrier in the 12 shirt, and Ben Te’o’s surprise inclusion alongside Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Davies is testament to that.
Farrell and Sexton would also have lacked the hours and proper game time together to build the telepathic understanding necessary to play two playmakers in the 10 and 12 positions. The success of Ford and Farrell for England is built on over ten years of friendship and age-grade rugby together. It would be a challenge of herculean proportions to expect Sexton and Farrell to develop that on the tour without ever actually playing a match together before the tests.
What Greig Laidlaw now offers that was absent before is top-level fly half cover. He has played there for Scotland and his club sides and if, as expected, he takes the midweek 9 shirt he could step over to the fly half position if necessary without needing either Sexton or Farrell to be involved from the bench.
Of course, really this is all just me attempting to resurrect the idea of the Sexton/Farrell combo. The way Gatland spoke about Farrell as one of three fly halves and the lack of other credible 10 cover prior to Laidlaw’s inclusion means he may already have thrown the idea of twin playmakers onto the scrap heap. And of course all the prior evidence of tactics suggest Gatland is unlikely to wield a rapier when he can swing a wrecking ball in the centre.
Then there is the possibility that Sexton and Farrell may just not click or work as a partnership. We seem to forget that – you can pick the best players on paper, but sometimes they just don’t work on the pitch.
However, a tactical selection that seemed, if not impossible then impractical following the squad announcement, has just been given a slim ray of hope.
By Henry Ker