The back-row is probably the area where we find the most keenly-fought selection battle. The two key issues for Gatland here lie within the unquestionable realities of a fearsome Australian back-row and the style in which he wants the Lions to play; despite David Pocock being sidelined, the likes of Liam Gill, Michael Hooper and even the 2001 Lions’ nemesis, George Smith, will fight it out for that infamous number seven Wallaby jersey. The blindside and number eight will be in the typical Wallaby mold, combining power with aggression, whilst showing those classy and skillful touches with ball in hand. How will Gatland choose to combat this? Looking at the back-row players he has at his disposal, it is difficult to imagine him picking a side that plays free flowing rugby, a style we saw flashes of at the Millennium stadium on a certain Saturday a month or so ago. He will, I imagine, look to grind down Robbie Deans’ men at the set piece, as the pack is directed around the pitch by an efficient kicking game.
Definites: Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau, Chris Robshaw
Sam Warburton’s colossal performances in the latter weeks of this year’s Six Nations have propelled him right back to the top of Gatland’s list. He seems to have found his form of 2011 (a year in which he seemed to hit harder than the rules might have permitted). The manner in which he played and led Wales during the World Cup helped label him as one of the best opensides in the world. He will be on the shortlist for captain, and is more than qualified to nullify and intimidate whoever wears the Gold and Green number seven jersey.
Chris Robshaw carries attributes that help compliment the players around him. His role within the Quins and England set-ups has often seen him distributing ball around the fringes, creating chances and showing off his array of offloading skills. This will be important in creating space for the ball carriers, although Robshaw isn’t shy of a carry himself. When he combines this with a fearless tackling technique and work rate, he will gain the respect of those around him, as he too puts his hand up for the captaincy. He and Warburton should be seated either side of Gatland on the flight to Australia.
Toby Faletau’s presence at the back of the scrum has helped catalyse the inter-linking of the forwards and backs within the Welsh side. He is one of the key factors surrounding Wales’ success in playing attacking, free flowing rugby. His brute strength and deceptive pace make him a handful for opposition defenders. He is a crucial asset to the Lions due to his ‘game breaker’ qualities – someone who can do something special in attack and make those crucial try scoring opportunities count in a high pressure and constricted test arena. He will, most likely, be playing behind an efficient, hard working and well drilled pack whilst offering an ‘x-factor’ that must be appreciated and utilised in order for the team to pose a greater attacking threat.
Probables: Jamie Heaslip, Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Tom Wood
The sight of this list of players waiting nervously by the phone for Gatland’s phone call is a baffling prospect; on many other tours, they would have been certainties. Such is the reality of the strength in depth within the potential Lions’ ranks. Jamie Heaslip would count himself very unlucky to miss out, as he has been a stand out performer for Ireland for a number of years. There is, of course, a considerable focus on form on the selectors’ radar; however, we must remember the quality certain candidates possess, or rather, have possessed. The trio of Heaslip, O’Brien and Ferris was once debated as one of the best back rows in the world. With their resolute focus on Lions selection and the time they have been allocated to get themselves fit, it could be argued that it is tough to overlook any of them.
Justin Tipuric’s man of the match performance against England epitomised everything a coach wants in a flanker; aggressive and skillful, with that out and out pace that will come in handy when dealing with the inevitable threats of Will Genia around the base. Tom Wood is another who deserves a spot; an proper team man and leader. If it weren’t for an injury in early 2012 that enabled Robshaw to cement the England captaincy, he may have found himself in the ‘Definites’ section.
Possibles: Stephen Ferris, David Denton, Kelly Brown, Nick Easter, Johnnie Beattie, Tom Croft, James Haskell, Ryan Jones, Peter O’Mahony, Ben Morgan
They may not be sat next to the phone, but you can guarantee they’ll be within earshot. When compiling this section, the list seemed to be never ending. Gatland may have a couple of surprises in store for us however – Nick Easter, although disregarded by England, continues to show form for his club. Then there is the experience of Haskell, Brown and Croft, who have all played at the intensity which Lions rugby demands. Tom Croft and Ben Morgan have both been in prolific form for Leicester and Gloucester respectively. The former showed his versatility by skating around a number of Bath back line players to score a try under the posts at the weekend, and Ben Morgan is putting in consistent performances on a regular basis.
David Denton burst onto the Scottish rugby scene in 2012 and has struggled with injury this past year. However, his man of the match performance in a losing cause against England last year showed his true abilities. Warren Gatland may be tempted into a few controversial decisions in this section of his squad, as he looks for the correct group of players to implement his eagerly awaited patterns of play.
By Ross Jones-Davies