Lions Squad Predictor: The Back Three

tommy bowe
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

28 thoughts on “Lions Squad Predictor: The Back Three

  1. Halfpenny is a definite first choice 15, no doubt about that. His form this year has been outstanding! He’s a terrific catcher, hard tackler, strong runner with the ball and a great goal kicker.

    I think the 4 definite wingers should be North, Cuthbert, Zebo and Gilroy. North and Cuthbert offer that power to go with their speed, whilst Zebo and Gilroy offer flair and something a little different. Gatland could mix and match the 4 of them in the warm up games and then play the two that most impressed for the test matches.

  2. Will there be three full backs and four wingers going? I think that is a bit heavy. I can see it being only two full backs, with Gatland having to pick between Hogg and Kearney, and then having a utility back. Unless Gatland think Hogg being able to play 13 and wings put him in that category?

    Also, this is the first predictions list that I disagree with. I certainly do not think that Hogg is definite, he would be on the fringe between probable and possible in my book. Alsol, Zebo and Bowe look the wrong way around to me, as well as Kearney being more of a possible than probable. I think if Kearney goes it will be based on his experience on the 2009 tour, and past performances, not how he has played more recently.

    My options would be:
    Wingers – North, Cuthbert, Bowe and Ashton
    Full Backs – Halfpenny and Hogg

    Then just another back – potentially Hook, or maybe Kearney is Hogg is considered versatile – or this space could be for a bolter, ie. Wade or Gilroy.

    1. FB Halfpenny and Kearney
      Wings North, Cuthbert,Hogg , Maitland and Bowe.
      I can’t see how Ashton even comes into the equation desperately lacking in confidence.
      An outside bet is Lee Byrne as touted by Andy Irvine who is flying with Clermont Auvergnr.

      1. I think Ashton, as you said, was low on confidence in the 6N. He is a confidence player, and he is playing fantastically for Saracens, and is getting his confidence back.

        Gatland will know what he can do, and when on form, he is a starter for the test side. I think Gatland will take him, and view it with the fact that he has six weeks to get Ashton full of confidence, which can be done.

        1. I can’t agree with that I’m afraid. I don’t see how, judging from his Six Nations performances, he even comes close to a starting Lions XV!

          Terrible in defence, flacid in attack, came across as very easy to wind up on occassion. He doesn’t deserve to even go on this tour.

          Before anyone accuses me of being a bitter Celt, I am an Englishman and am actually a big fan of Ashton. But the Ashton of the Six Nations was dire. I might be a fan, but I am not an idiot. Other people deserve that place far more than he does.

          1. Whilst I completely agree that he was poor in the 6N, he was not as poor as people liked to suggest. And based on his 6N form, no he shouldn’t be on the plane.

            But that isn’t the point I am making. His form for Saracens the past few weeks has been fantastic, and I include his defense in that. His confidence is rising and on tour running off the shoulders of BOD and Sexton in training will only raise the confidence more so. He is a dangerous player and I can really see him going.

  3. WG shouldn’t take Cuthbert, his currently average ability is being well masked by a prudent use of his talents by Howley and co. His 4 6N tries were all pretty much walk ins, didn’t have to beat a single man, they used the same set move twice and then he had to cruise in the 2 v. Eng. He is an impressive athlete, but North is better and I would argue Visser is a similar player but a better finisher. His defensive alignment is pretty poor (one of the main reasons Wade may not go). BOD made him look a fool for Zebo’s try v. Ire and he has a seriously limited kicking game. Take 1 big lump in North, we’re gonna have 3 in the midfield anyway.

    I like Maitland (and obviously Wade) from the possibles. Wade probably wouldn’t make the test team, but with a quality team around him he could light up the dirt-tracker games and bring an element of excitement to the group. Similar thoughts with Maitland, although his all-round game is far more polished than Wade’s. Plus, he should know the opposition pretty well and has a better chance of making the test side.

    I go:


  4. At this juncture the back three have to be Halfpenny, Cuthbert and North. Yes Hogg has to go but as a fullback or wing?

    1. Halfpenny, North and Bowe/Ashton/Maitland. Yes, Wales have two big lumps on the wing and it works well, but in an ideal world Wales would have one poweful winger in North and one more all round player who is more intelligent than Cuthbert, but unfortunately there is not a great deal of Welsh wingers right now.

  5. Personally I would take, North, Cuthbert, Zebo and Ashotn as my wingers with Halfpenny and Hogg as full backs. Kearney showed no form or class in the 6N, and for me has fallen behind Hogg in the list. Ashton goes because of experience and he is returning to form. I think it’s a little early for Bowe to find his full form after returning from injury (if you’re not sure see Ashotn’s try vs Ulster in the HC quarter final a few weeks ago).

    He may only take three wingers though, and have a floater between both positions. We know that Halfpenny and Brown have played top level on the wing. Could Hogg play wing as well?

  6. 1/2p, Hogg, North, Cuthbert, Zebo (more cover at 15, so certainly no Kearney) and …. yes I’m going for it ….. Wade!

  7. I’d say Patch has Cuthbert spot on, He lacks much of a rugby brain and spends his time in defense looking more confused and out of position than a Lion. One dimensional compared to some of the game changing players WG has available.


    1. Cheers Mexico, I wonder if he’s thinking of taking 3 FB’s, with H/penny and possibly Brown seen as playing all 3? (plus Hogg)

      Hogg’s form has been excellent and his counter-attacking and support play are exceptional but Kearney’s experience may well get him there, even though I don’t feel he’s been at his 09 best for some time, as he’s been playing in a good team.

  8. I really don’t get all the hype about Stuart Hogg. What it looked like to me was two eye catching length of the field tries. First the one against England, when all the good work was done by Denton and Maitland and all Hogg had to do was outpace Toby Flood. He also made one nice line break in that game as the gap opened up as Mike Brown was watching the outside man. Secondly against Italy, he scored an interception when he sidestepped two front rowers. He showed good pace but pace alone does not get you on the Lions tour. Against Wales and Ireland he was anonymous and against France he was dreadful. Under the high ball I don’t think he is fully confident and as the last line of defence, just watch Fofana ghost past him for his try.

    Kearney on the other hand is perhaps not playing too well at the moment, but has the ability to play several gears higher than he is right now. Personally I dont see anyway HP wouldn’t get into the test team, but if he were to get injured I would much rather have Kearney than Hogg at the back.

    I would take 4 wingers. North, Bowe, Wade and one of Cuthbert or Ashton and 2 fullbacks HP and Kearney.

  9. Maitland’s all round game is very good and he’s a deadly finisher. He also covers fullback. I’d think that might increase his chances to go.

  10. I dont see the point in taking North, Cuthbert and Bowe on the Tour. They are all the same sort of player.

    If Gatland does take 4 wingers, I’d much rather see them be George North, Bowe; and then two nippy, jinky flyers, namely Wade and Visser.

    1. Viseer, nippy and jinky? He’s 6’4″ and 17st. Don’t think you could class him as nippy or jinky. Gilroy maybe?

      North, Cuthbert, Visser, Bowe and Ashton are all quite similar really. Wade definitely brings an X factor we haven’t seen for a while.

  11. I know Halfpenny is going to go, but if your basing it on his 6N form, his man of the match performances came from his goal kicking. If your going to have the likes of farrell and sexton there, then its not as big factor in his selection. He is good under a high ball and in defence but haven’t seen much of him in attack. Hogg does look like more exciting and has a cracking boot, Kearney is tried and tested.

    My worry, is that its going to be a team made up of Welsh players. In my mind they’ve had one good game against England but haven’t looked great in the Autumn or the early 6N, grabbing a late minute win against France. In the same way there was a load of hype for England players to be picked after the New Zealand game, there shouldn’t be the same hype now for Welsh players. In my opinion Mike Phillips will ruin the Lions, he has had one good game all season. The lions should be picked on form and to some extent reputation, as they are going down there primarily to win a tour.

    Halfpenny, Hogg, North, Bowe, then either Brown/Maitland/zebo/wade

    1. Wade less likely as he hasn’t been tested at full international level, give it a few years and he’ll be on the next one

  12. Wade has got to be given a chance. Varndel could flurish out in the dry pitches of Australia and i agree you do need a lump so the welsh boys espically North fits that requirement.

    I think Ben Foden is the best fullback we have available but i have not seem him lately and he must therfore be out of contention, he threatens teams and makes them do things they dont want to.

    1. Foden is only just getting back to some kind of form, but still not his best form. I think both him and Bowe will have to miss out on this one.

  13. Foden seems to have lost his form since his injury

    I would take Brown over both Kearney and Hogg. Kearney is not the force he once was and Hogg, whilst fast, has problems with the high ball and his defence

    Brown is rock solid under the high ball, has a massive boot on him, has been in the top 10 try scorers in the Premiership for the last few years and has an ability to make yards even though nothing looks like its on. He can also cover wing. I don’t see him as a starting player, but certainly perfect for the mid-week teams

    On the winger front, I have concerns over Zebo – can he cut it at international level? We’ve not really seen yet – and Maitland

    My problem with Maitland is not his ability but the fact that he is literally just off the plane from NZ.

    I know pretty much all the international sides have players who weren’t born in the country they now represent, but at least Tuilagi, Hartley, Vunipola, North et al have been here for years and have earned the right to qualify for a Lions tour.

    Three years ago Maitland was playing for the Maori. (I had the same issue with Flutey’s selection last time, although at least he’d been here for 4 years)

    1. Interesting point about Brown- not one I had really thought of before. For me Kearney made the plane mainly because of the lack of other options, but Brown was really impressive in the 6N and was one of Englands top performers vs Wales. He is definitely in better form than Kearney and perhaps Gatland took note of that. His attitude during games is ‘never say die’ and has a knack of always making metres. He is also one of the best backs in the NH at the breakdown, I have seen him many times steal ball for England.

  14. Halfpenny and Kearney are the two standout FB’s for me and they have shown year after year that they can do it, so both have to go.

    I like North and Zebo to start. Both good footballers and finishers. Personally think Cuthbert has done enough to go – he has at the end of the day been scoring international tries.

    Still undecided after that. Hogg and Brown are really FB’s but both have done well on the wing, and therefore offer versatility. Bowe if fit should be the one, but if fit. Visser and Maitland have had decent international seasons. Ashton has pedigree but not current international form and I don’t think that you can take the risk that he may or may not find it again.

    Will finally plump for Bowe, with Visser after that and Hogg if Gatland takes an extra player to cover the back three.

  15. Halfpenny has to go. Obviously first choice.
    Hogg was good in 6 nations, so he should be on the plane.
    Brown has been excellent for 2 seasons, and has looked infinitely better than Kearney. If Kearney goes it will be based on his 2009 performances and Heineken form from last year, not any recent form. Unlike say Croft (who has a reputation but has hit those heights again recently) Kearney has the reputation but no recent form to back it up.

  16. I think that Gatland would be mad not to take Christian Wade. Why? Because he really is exceptionally different to the others and of course, he can afford to take him.

    They only need 4 back three players for the tests; 3 to play and 1 for cover, and even the covering player could also be a centre. There are the 3 probables already, that none would argue with, and probably a couple more out of Cuthbert, Bowe, Brown, Kearney etc who are all more than capable.

    You could view Wade as a bit of a gamble, or a luxury, but why not, as there is plenty of cover if it doesn’t work out.

  17. Bang on with my selection dated April 26 !! Halfpenny,Kearney,Hogg,North,Bowe,Bowe and Maitland

Comments are closed.