Now we come to the first real area of controversy. Who starts in the centre will be one of the most difficult and intriguing calls that Gatland has to make. Will he stick with the tried and tested 2009 combo of Roberts and O’Driscoll, or will he twist and plump for Tuilagi’s brute physicality?
Player of the tour in 2009, Roberts has fine Lions pedigree and has become known for raising his game for the big games. Hopefully, that is the reason why he was fairly anonymous against a second rate Combined Country XV this week. Much was made of seeing Roberts and O’Driscoll play together again, but while the Irish great played another blinder Roberts was kept quiet, and actually looked a little off form. Whether he will get another chance to prove his form is unsure, but for now he must be hoping that his relationship with Gatland and his heroics in 2009 are enough to beat off the challenge of Tuilagi for the 12 spot.
Verdict: probable test starter
A stinger to the shoulder deprived us of seeing Tuilagi let loose against the Reds, after we saw glimpses of his talent against the Force last week. A typically brutish break through the middle preceded a glorious inside pass to O’Driscoll in what was one of the moments of the match, and pointed to the huge potential this partnership could have. Tuilagi’s physical attributes do mean he is capable of things on a rugby pitch no other player in the world is, and when one of the best players of the last decade (Dan Carter) endorses you as the one he wouldn’t want to face, you must be doing something right. From a personal point of view, I firmly believe Gatland would be missing a trick in leaving Tuilagi out, especially as there is unlikely to be a space on the bench for a centre. To leave a man of his capabilities out of the 23 all together seems absurd – for this reason he should start.
Verdict: possible test starter
Past his best? Unable to cope with the demands of a gruelling tour? Nonsense. O’Driscoll has proved his ability and fitness this tour, with 160 minutes of rugby already under his belt. There may not be the pace of old but there is still that innate rugby intelligence that cannot be taught. This has been in evidence on several occasions already – the timing of his run to latch onto Tuilagi’s pass against the Force, or the beautiful swerve and well-weighted grubber to send Jon Davies in against the Combined Country XV. He is now likely to be wrapped in cotton wool by the coaches, ready to be rolled out for the first test. It is no longer a question of if he will start, but of who will partner him.
Verdict: nailed on test starter
Davies was always likely to be the ‘fourth’ centre, in that he came into the tour behind the other three in the pecking order. He has played the most rugby of any of the midfield men, and despite showing some nice touches and generally playing quite well, he has not done enough to suggest he will challenge for the test squad. A handy back-up option to have, however. Expect to see him in the remaining couple of midweek fixtures, against the Brumbies and the Rebels.
Verdict: not in the test squad
Your turn now – cast your vote in the poll below and explain your decisions in the comments section.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43