The back three is an intriguing area, with a host of high-quality options but few who are actually nailed on to tour. The Aussies have traditionally had good strength in this area, and this season have unearthed gems such as Brumbies duo Jesse Mogg and Henry Speight to go along with more established campaigners like Digby Ioane and James O’Connor, although the latter may find himself at fly-half. So who will Gatland pick to nullify and counter this threat?
Definites: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Stuart Hogg
Leigh Halfpenny is probably the only man who can be guaranteed to be on the teamsheet for that first test. He was comfortably the best player in the Six Nations, solid under the high and metronomic with the boot. Where he starts, however, depends on whether Gatland wants to take a punt on the other stand-out fullback from the Northern Hemisphere – Stuart Hogg. There is no one else capable of making the breaks that he does, and he is more likely to punish any wayward kicking than anyone else. The only other real dead certainty is George North who, despite being outscored by his wing partner in the Six Nations, is the much more complete option of the two players. His size and offloading ability will worry the Aussies.
Probables: Alex Cuthbert, Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo
Alex Cuthbert is perhaps a touch unlucky not to make the definites list; the only reason he finds himself here is if Gatland wants to pick someone in a different mould to North (a bolter, perhaps) in his stead. Given that it was Gatland who brought these two giant wrecking-ball wingers together for Wales, however, he is unlikely to miss out. Rob Kearney did not have the best Six Nations going forwards, but looked as solid as ever and has the valuable commodity of Lions experience to his name – something that cannot be said of many in this category. For that reason he makes the probables category.
Simon Zebo’s outrageous skill in the opening Six Nations game against Wales is not the only reason he has jumped into the probables – his work rate and defensive efforts in Munster’s Heineken Cup quarter final victory against Harlequins were equally as impressive. A big performance against Clermont this weekend could see him ink his name definitively onto the squad list.
Possibles: Tommy Bowe, Mike Brown, Chris Ashton, Alex Goode, Tim Visser, Lee Byrne, Christian Wade, Sean Maitland, Craig Gilroy
The final wing spot is likely to be a shoot-out between Tommy Bowe, the Scottish partnership of Visser and Maitland, and the bolter on everyone’s lips: Christian Wade. Bowe, had he not been injured for entirety of the Six Nations, would probably have made the definites list given his past experience with the Lions. He is a world class poacher and probably still the most likely to go. Visser and Maitland are both excellent finishers – Visser’s try scoring record for Scotland is highly impressive. Are they better than Bowe though? Possibly not, although Maitland hasn’t had much of a chance to prove himself. The dire conditions that plagued the Six Nations were not conducive to his game, and in the (hopefully) sunnier climes of Australia, he could run amok.
And then there is Wade. Many people have been championing his cause as the most obvious ‘bolter’ to travel with the squad, almost like taking a bolter is a necessity. He has, however, been in incredible form for Wasps this season, scoring some of the most outrageous tries you are likely to see. Is Gatland willing to take a punt on him?
Other options include Ashton, whose form has improved at Saracens but who will need a massive performance this weekend against Toulon to erase the memories of his dangerously leaky defence in the Six Nations. Alex Goode didn’t have the best tournament either and sits at the bottom of the full-back ladder, along with Welsh outsider Lee Byrne. Mike Brown’s ability to cover all of the back three could work in his favour, but his role as part of a misfiring English unit over the Six Nations will not help hoist him above other contenders.
A final thought – it has become obvious over the course of these ‘predictor’ articles that, in most areas, the ‘possibles’ section vastly outweighs the other two, highlighting just what a tough job Gatland has to do, and how many top quality players are going to be left at home. Over to you, Warren.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43