The half-backs are the most important people on the pitch. They dictate the tempo of play, and are crucial in making sure the team plays in the right area of the pitch. As such it is an area in which Gatland must make no mistakes, and while there are some strong candidates, there is perhaps not the strength-in-depth that previous tours have been blessed with.
Whoever makes the plane as scrum-half will have the unenviable task of shackling the at times unplayable Will Genia. At fly-half, the Aussies have a host of choices, some of whom may not be available for off-field issues. That said, they still boast a list of options that most other countries would be envious of.
Definites: Ben Youngs, Mike Phillips, Johnny Sexton
Two of the three scrum-half spots are nailed down. Ben Youngs was consistently good over the Six Nations, but has really burst into some sublime form since returning to the Tigers. His breathtaking 80 metre solo try against Bath last weekend was a thing of beauty, and shows why he absolutely must tour. His box-kicking has also come on massively in the past year, and is up there with the best in the world. Much was made of Mike Phillips lacking form and fitness coming into the Six Nations, and after that loss to Ireland he was massively under pressure. Four games later, however, and those calling for him to be dropped had been made to look mightily stupid. Abrasive, strong and full of niggle, he must be no fun to play against. While Youngs has the more explosive game to perhaps match Genia, Phillips could certainly be relied upon to get in his head.
Gatland has said that he plans to only take two ‘out and out’ fly-halves, meaning Johnny Sexton, hands down first choice despite his recent injury troubles, is the only man guaranteed his place in this position. Sexton’s game is significantly more complete than his rivals, and for that reason he must be one of the first names on Gatland’s squad list.
Probables: Owen Farrell
No scrum-halves make this list because it is too close to call as to who will get the third spot – it will all come down to what Gatland is looking for in his third choice. Owen Farrell shifted himself into prime position to take the fly-half understudy role over the Six Nations, showing the kind of composure and awareness that have helped thrust him to the top of the England fly-half list. He showed more of a propensity to attack in the opening game against Scotland, but did struggle to back that up in the ensuing games, reverting to type and sitting deeper. He could be a good man to bring on in the last twenty minutes to steady the ship, and for that reason he sneaks into the probables category.
Possibles: Jonny Wilkinson, Greig Laidlaw, Danny Care, Conor Murray, Dan Biggar, Ian Madigan, James Hook, Toby Flood, Rhys Priestland
If Wilkinson outplays Farrell this weekend when they go head to head in the semi final of the Heineken Cup, he could well leapfrog the young pretender into the probables category. At the moment he is slightly behind, purely because he plies his trade at Toulon and that will be a tick in the ‘con’ column for Gatland. They are very similar players, and it could easily be argued that his experience means he would be more useful on a one-off tour like the Lions.
Other contenders for the fly-half role include Dan Biggar, who led the Welsh line superbly in the Six Nations, Toby Flood, who has excelled back at Leicester recently but who wobbled when given a chance in the Six Nations, and James Hook, whose versatility makes him a very attractive option. Rhys Priestland’s return to action last weekend probably comes slightly too late for him, although having worked together with Wales Gatland will know what he has to offer. If he were taking three fly-halves, Ian Madigan might have been worth a shout as a very unlikely bolter, but with only two likely to go it is highly improbable. He does offer similar versatility to Hook, however, and has been in superb form for Leinster.
The third scrum-half spot is a three-way shootout between Greig Laidlaw, Danny Care and Conor Murray. All three have their strengths, although Murray’s similarities with Phillips probably put him at the bottom of the list. Danny Care would be the most attacking option, given his almost unparalleled ability to find holes around the fringes, but he showed against Italy that his decision making and box-kicking can sometimes be found wanting. Laidlaw has the bonus of being able to cover fly-half as well, which could work heavily in his favour. He is also a third different type of player, with a more controlled game but none of the explosiveness of Youngs or abrasiveness of Phillips. Whether that works in his favour or not is not really clear yet.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43