Lions Squad Predictor: The Back Row

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

33 thoughts on “Lions Squad Predictor: The Back Row

    1. Agreed dave.

      If Morgan doesn’t go, then I would take SOB as an 8 and have another flanker.

      Warburton and tipuric would be the 7’s with Wood and Robshaw travelling as 6’s. SOB would go as a utility backrower.

      Faletau and Morgan (or SOB) as 8’s.

      If Morgan doesn’t travel and SOB comes as an 8 then I would look to maybe have lydiate or brown. Brown is a good utility, but wood and Robshaw are also pretty ubiquitous.

  1. I would take your Definites and Probables list – but Morgan over Heaslip and Croft over Lydiate.

    My starting back row would be the three you have in the Definites section!

  2. It’s the most difficult position to choose these days. There’s a wealth of talent in the backrow and finding balance there is going to be the difficult job. I’m not 100% sure on Faletau. As much as I like him, I don’t think he looked too good in the 6 nations, bar the England game. Similarly Heaslip was pretty off colour. To be frank, at 8 I think Johnnie Beattie was the stand out performer (of the Lions qualified sides) in the 6 Nations and is worth a bump up to probables.

    I also wonder if in search for the balance he wants Tom Croft might also get a call, but it’s entirely down to Gatland’s view of balance and his gameplan.

    1. Agreed regarding the 8’s. it’s why I think SOB could go as an 8, making way for another in form flanker.
      Agree that Beattie was pretty decent, but I think Morgan brings more when he is fit.

      I think croft could sneak on, especially because of his previous lions experience.

    2. Reckon Ben Morgan was the standout 8 on show in the 6N before injury rather than Johnnie Beattie. I think the Aussie grounds should suit Faletau, so would take these two at 8.

      SoB and Wood at 6. Warburton at 7. Still unsure about Tipuric. He had a blinder against England and the hard grounds will suit him, but I am still worried about his size at the breakdown particularly against the Aussies, but would probably take him.

      Between Robshaw, Croft and Jones as the utility back row pick/s.

  3. Would say that Wood is more definite than Robshaw.

    Surely Steffon Armitage should have made the possibles.

    1. It am not convinced by armitage, especially compared to the other options at 7.

      Also he is unlikely to want to upset the Toulon setup, so will want to be available for the top 14 final.

  4. Have to agree with the definites, as for the Probables Beattie for Woods and not convinced over Heaslips form, (and I am a Heaslip fan)with Ryan Jones as back row cover.

  5. Warburton, Lydiate, Tipuric, Ryan jones, Morgan, Denton, Robshaw.

    2 8’s, 2 blinds, 2 opens and Ryan Jones covers 6, 8 and the 2nd row.

    I’ve never rated the Irish back row (as I believe I have said before on this blog and been shouted at in the past).

    1. I am not sure on Denton from that selection!? He had a really poor 6N to the point where he got dropped from the Scottish 23, so that is an odd one. Otherwise I can see the reasoning behind the other selections. I am not sure that versitility is enough to get Ryan Jones on the plane, I like him, but there is no need.

      I’d have:
      Robshaw – as a 6, but can cover 7 and 8
      Croft – as a 6, can cover lock
      Wood – as a 6, can cover 7 and 8
      Warburton – as a 7, can cover 6
      SOB – as a 7, but can cover 6 and 8
      Tipuric – as a 7
      Morgan – as an 8
      Falatau – as an 8

      I think there is enough there, and better players than Ryan Jones, so there is no need to include him just for his versatility.

      1. Ryan Jones is there for more than versatility. He is there for leadership and he is a quality work horse. First to tackle consistent yard gain (not huge but consistent). One of the most successful players and captains Wales have ever had. He is quality and I’d put him in above most other back rows, other than maybe Tipuric.

        You may be right about Denton though. Maybe I’ll take Faletau instead.

  6. This is very tough.

    I’d have Warburton and Tipuric as my 7s, and would probably count them both as definites. Tom Wood is top of my list at 6, and I’d take Dan Lydiate if he’s fit, so Robshaw is on the Probables list for me.

    Then I’d take Faletau and (I think) Ben Morgan as the 8s.

    Just a quick glance at the list of those missing out is excruciating. I suspect Croft will be on the tour given his form and experience, so then someone like Robshaw or Lydiate could potentially miss out.

    Or do a Clive and take everyone?!

  7. Think Faletau and Warburtaon are the only definites. Reason I would class Robshaw as probable is I can see Gatland viewing him as 3rd choice 7 (behind Warburton and Tipuric and potentially lacking the pace to combat the opposition) and much lower down the list as a 6. I think he will go and end up being the midweek captain. His lack of ego, selfless leadership and work ethic are all the right attributes for the midweek team.

    I think Wood playing out of position in the 6N in an area of such strength is going to cost him, if he does go I can only see it being at the expense of Robshaw (or if Lydiate isn’t fit enough)

    Heaslip doesn’t provide enough go-forward these days. If we lose Faletau we need a high impact ball carrier to come in, yes SOB could be moved, but I would rather see Morgan included as a hard carrying 8.

    I think we will see:
    Warburton, Faletau, Tipuric, Robshaw, Lydiate, SOB, Morgan

    If Lydiate can’t prove his form/fitness then I think the pace of Wood may get the nod over the power of Jones (either would be a valuable lineout option). Does anyone know how Lydiate is doing?

  8. Very tough indeed!
    Haven’t seen much of Dan Lydiate since his comeback from injury – what’s his form like? So good last year but bearing in mind NGD’s end of season fixtures, another month off before the Lions tour won’t help his match fitness /sharpness. If Gatland does pick him he should play for the BaaBaa’s against England, the week before playing against them!
    Croft’s previous Lions experience and pace will be hard to ignore, especially with Ferris likely (certain?) to miss out through injury.

  9. No offense to anyone but I find the suggestion by a number of people that Sean O’Brien is a long way down the pecking line of players very strange. Of all the players listed here he is by far the best ball carrier and would thrive on hard ground. He is also a former ERC player of the year and has been outstanding for Ireland and Leinster this year. My preference would be for O’Brien at 6, Tipuric at 7 and Morgan/Faletau at 8.

    1. Agreed. O’Brien was looking good in a poor Ireland side in the 6N. A destructive ball carrier and a solid defender. Useful man for consideration.

  10. OK to start Robshaw has been IMMENSE for 2 years now. How much praise has been heaped on him in that time? Stats are fantastic, and even in his “bad games” (autumn defeats) his performances were actually fantastic. Stand out back rower, so consistent, MUST GO. 6 probably.

    Tough on Wood, but Croft has x factor and pace to spare, real world class proven talent on big stages, and on hard ground will be excellent.

    Tipuric has been impressive and consistent this year, and could prosper on hard ground too, so he goes for sure as 7.

    SOB is a real impact player, very strong, would have him as the back row cover on the bench for sure.

    Faletau – lots of people rate him, me not quite as much, but definitely better than Heaslip and has been playing a lot recently so he goes.

    Morgan has done enough to bolt into my team. Best ball carrier – his beaten defenders stats are second to none.

    That leaves one of Brown, Jones and Warburton – like Brown, think Warburton hasn’t done enough to warrant his seat, so if fit i’d take jones.

  11. Tom Wood has to go, way ahead of Robshaw in rugby intellect a man who could possibly out fox those clever clever Aussies! But i have to say i’d go with 6.O’Brien 7.Warburton 8.Morgan
    just for the physicality and ball carrying side as i see the Lions getting ascendency at the set pieces and around the fringes although my heart says if the breakdown starts to get really competitive i’d go 6.WOOD 7.WARBURTON 8.O’BRIEN

    1. I think the breakdown will be very competitive, especially if Smith plays. My preferred back row is the latter you posted. I really rate Tom Wood, does the unseen work and rarely misses tackles. Especially as Warburton is a good ball carrier already, having 3 carriers in SOB, Warburton and Morgan may seem a bit unnecessary.

  12. I really don’t get the fuss about Faletau from this years 6Ns. I don’t think No8 is a position of strength for the Lions (unlike 6 and 7) so I think he will go out of necessity. We may even see him go as the only 8, so that an additional in-form 6/7 could fit in – particularly as several of them can cover No8.

    Still not convinced by Tipuric. A well deserved MotM against England, but apart from that a few “impact” displays late on in games. Yes, i know he started more games this year, but I am not sure he did particularly well from the start (England game the exception of course).

    Lastly, there is talk of countering Australia’s No7, with the belief being that we need to play them, and better them at their game. I wonder if this is what Gatland may have a different view, and may feel that a different balance in the back row might in fact be the better bet against the Aussies. Therefore challenging the Aussies to match the Lions, rather than vice-versa.

    1. We don’t need to ‘counter’ the Aussie 7s. What we do need is for the team to aggressively hit rucks in support of ball carriers and to aggressively counter-ruck on opposition ball

      If teams do this and blast the opposition flankers off the ball, then the aussies can pick whoever they want at 7 and it won’t make a blind bit of difference.

      No 8 is difficult. Faletau is described as a “game-breaker” in the article. Try as I might, I cannot think of Faletau ever having this effect or ever terrorising a defence.

      He is however very consistent and I would take him. Really think you need another specialist 8 as well, so would take Morgan as a player able to get in behind the defensive line

  13. Gatland’s team, of those three starters only Warburton’s selection agrees with me. I think Robshaw could be at risk, Sean OB and Tipuric have a real claim to be starting, and Toby Faletau may be at risk. I would remember, he was immense in the World Cup against Southern Hemisphere sides and if that form rekindled then he’d easily start. Could face some opposition though. Also think Gatland could go for Lydiate/Wood as impact players.
    From the Possibles: I firmly believe Nick Easter, Ben Jones, David Denton and Peter M. are out of contention, regardless of form. I don’t think they’ve proved themselves as Lions this year. Tom Croft could have a claim, but there are other in form back rowers. J Beattie has an outside chance, he’s played immensely for Montpellier this year and impressed in the six nations. Haskell’s a huge figure of a man, could be effective, but I don’t know if he’s got that star quality he used too (Perhaps just a little over the hill?). Ryan Jones, Stephen Ferris and Kelly Brown have to be the strongest claims in the possibles. RJ is a great player, a leader of men, ex captain, favourite of Gatlands. He’s still got some talent, although I think he may lose his place to other welsh boys. Ferris is another Irish man moutain, and like S O’Brian proved himself in the world cup only over a year ago, with good performances in the six nations too. Kelly Brown surprises me as quite a strong possibility however. Arguably the most impressive Scot in the Six Nations, a qualified leader, immense figures in the Aviva Premiership, Six Nations and other competitions, if memory serves me correctly I believe he was top 3 at the least in tackle count and turnovers in the Aviva and the Six Nations. He’s consistenly good, 6″6 110kg and quick, and a proved back rower in the international stage. I could see him warranting a seat on that flight.

    1. Blues, I would suggest that the very last thing that Robshaw would be is a “risk”. Granted, I do not think he is is top of the Lions back-row charts, but of all the candidates he is probably the most consistent.

      Can’t see Haskell, Ferris, Denton or O’Mahoney going.

      Easter is an interesting choice though. I noted above my feelings around the quality of No8’s, and you couldn’t argue that Easter is not one of the highest performing and consistent 8’s in the UK (and Ireland!).

      Not in the England set-up because he is too old (and therefore not part of the future) or because he can be a divisive figure? I don’t know, but if it is the former he could have a chance? Personally I would go for Beattie though.

  14. “No 8 is difficult. Faletau is described as a “game-breaker” in the article. Try as I might, I cannot think of Faletau ever having this effect or ever terrorising a defence. ” – Watch the Wales v England game. Our 2nd try came from Fale dancing his way around 3 attempted tackles, then a lovely inside pass to Warburton who sprints up field… Fale does that sort of stuff all the time. As the article points out, he’s a great x factor number 8.

    Robbo – I can’t agree on Robshaw. I think he’s very good but not a stand out player in the back row. Not better than Warbs/Tips at 7 and not better than SOB at 6. I fear that he may miss out on the tests.

  15. John Beattie has more of a chance than Heaslip.

    Likewise Kelly Brown will definetly go over one of Wood, O’brien or Lydiate.

  16. If Gatland fails to take Croft there would be a massive loss of credibility. Think back to the last tour and he was our best player.

  17. A fit Morgan could be man of the series. Or he might not be fit and warm the bench with the dirt trackers.

    But no other No. 8 has “man of the series, spirit of Scott Quinell” potential. Could the Wallabis be worried about Heaslip or Falatau? I doubt it.

    He has to travel.

  18. I think Heaslip will go as back up to Faletau although I would prefer to see Morgan. Heaslip looked impressive yesterday against Biarritz but he always does on harder surfaces, which is what Australia has in abundance.

    I would have Warburton and Robshaw as 7 and 6 respectively with Brown covering all options on the bench.

    Probable other tourist would be O’Mahony for his pace and power in the loose.

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