The fifth instalment of our Lions Squad Predictor series brings you one of the most hotly debated positions on the touring squad – the centres. Warren Gatland has some very exciting options to pick from in this area, but as is the case with most positions in the game of rugby union, picking a combination of players who complement each other, and not necessarily selecting the best two players, often proves key to victory.
Definites: Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Manu Tuilagi
The leadership that O’Driscoll brings will be vital for the Lions backs, but that is not to suggest that he will simply be on the plane in a locker room leader role, as he can certainly still mix it with the world’s premiere centres. In attack, there is arguably no player out there who plays with the same intelligence as O’Driscoll, and certainly none that have the skill set required to exploit that intelligence. He’s also no slouch defensively, tackling with a ferocity and efficiency that often belies his size.
Separating Roberts and Tuilagi is extremely difficult. The Welshman has shown a better ability, at least at international level, to break holes in opposition defences, and then get his hands free and find his supporting teammates with offloads, whilst Tuilagi arguably shades Roberts in both pace and power, and can more often create scoring opportunities from seemingly nothing. Both players will almost certainly tour, and both would arguably provide the perfect foil to silky running of O’Driscoll. Roberts may be the pre-tournament favourite to start alongside the Irishman, given the potent attack they formed together in South Africa on the last Lions tour.
Probables: Jonathan Davies
It may be harsh on Davies to not be included in the definites, as there is a strong consensus that he will be joining the three previously mentioned players on the plane to Australia, but if there is one player of the four likely to be sacrificed for a bolter, or a player offering unique skills, it would likely be Davies.
Like Roberts and Tuilagi, Davies is a big, powerful ball-carrier, but he uses intelligent running lines and surprising pace to make up for the fact he does not quite have their strength, and finds holes in opposition defences, rather than making his own.
Possibles: Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees, Keith Earls, Gordon D’Arcy, Sean Lamont, Scott Williams, Matt Scott
Twelvetrees and Earls perhaps have the best chance of ousting Davies, or being selected as a fifth out-and-out centre if Gatland wishes to go down that road. The Englishman offers a kicking option which the Lions would lack in the foursome mentioned above, and Earls would provide like-for-like cover for O’Driscoll, if there are concerns over the veteran’s durability on a rigorous tour. Matt Scott, like Twelvetrees, is also in with a shout, given his ball-handling skills – something that is glaringly lacking in the options above.
The duo of Barritt and D’Arcy may have to rely on injuries for them to get their shots. Barritt has often stated he wants to be seen as more than a defensive player, but has not displayed that regularly enough at international level, and his chances will likely rest on whether or not Gatland feels his dominant defensive skills are enough to warrant a place on the plane, even as a backup.
Given the powerful ball-carrying prowess of Roberts, Tuilagi, and Davies, it’s highly unlikely that either Williams or Lamont will be picked in preference to them, but there is always the chance they could feature as injury replacements.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)