Lions test squad predictor: Flankers

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And so we come to probably the tightest area of selection. As with the centres, it is likely that any combination of flankers could be picked and we would be happy, such is the calibre of options on offer to Gatland. This article combines both the open and blindside roles, given the versatility of some of the players.

Tom Croft

Croft knows what it is to take a Lions tour by storm. In 2009 he was called in as an injury replacement, and probably played some of the best rugby of his career. In fact, only recently has he looked like reaching the heights of 2009 again, with his performance in the semi final of the Premiership particularly outstanding. He will start this weekend for only the second time, forming an intriguing partnership with captain and likely openside starter Sam Warburton. If they gel and the balance is right against the Waratahs, Gatland will be very pleased. Although Croft gets a lot of stick for purportedly ‘hanging out on the wing’ the reality is most loose forwards do this – he is only remembered for it because he so often scores tries there, due to his blistering pace. If he is not quite as agressive in the tackle as Lydiate, or as barnstorming in the tight as Sean O’Brien, he is still not afraid of getting his hands dirty around the breakdown, something he does more of than people give him credit for. This is all before mentioning how good he is at the line-out, too.

Verdict: test starter

Dan Lydiate

It is likely to be a straight shoot-out between Lydiate and Croft for the six shirt. They are completely different types of blindside, with Lydiate’s game based around power in the tackle and blitzing defence. It has been suggested that to get the best out of Warburton, Lydiate has to play, and if the Croft/Warburton axis does not quite work this weekend then Gatland will have an extremely difficult decision to make. The Welshman was a controversial initial pick, given his lack of game time and the form of players like Robshaw, Brown and Wood, and it is likely that were Gatland not coach he may not find himself here. Before accusations of Welsh bias are levelled, however, it has to be said that he has begun to repay some of Gatland’s faith on tour with some solid performances, although it is obvious that he is not back to his best yet. He may find that, given Croft’s form and experience with the Lions, that he does not feature in the first test. Seeing as he can only cover one position, it is also unlikely he will take a bench spot.

Verdict: not in the test squad

Sean O’Brien

Versatility is the word that means O’Brien will probably find himself involved in the tests in some way. He has played both six and seven so far, and has impressed in both positions. He is unquestionably the strongest ball-carrying flanker available to the Lions, but given the power of the front five in that area (think Vunipola, Gray, Youngs) it is not necessarily enough for him to be an automatic starter. Gatland has always favoured a ‘fetcher’ type player at openside, meaning one of the Welsh boys is likely to get the nod there, so O’Brien’s best chance of starting probably comes at blindside. That said, given his ability to cover all three back row positions, his most likely position is on the bench.

Verdict: on the test bench

Justin Tipuric

Tipuric has probably one of the most unlucky rugby players in the Northern Hemisphere over the past couple of years, given that the man ahead of him in the international pecking order is the captain and therefore almost guaranteed a start, despite not always being in better form. There are few better breakdown operators, and his work as a link man in the loose has been highlighted on this tour numerous times. However, he once again finds himself battling with Warburton, and once again his rival is captain. It would shatter Warburton’s confidence were he not to get picked, so it is tough to see Tipuric leapfrogging him into the starting line-up. And sadly, given his lack of versatility, it is unlikely he will be on the bench, either, meaning Tipuric could well be the unluckiest man to not be involved in the first test.

Verdict: not in the test squad

Sam Warburton

After this weekend, captain Sam will have started the two toughest games of the tour to date. Unless he has a stormer against the Waratahs, critics will probably be able to argue that he has not produced the form of O’Brien or Tipuric, and while this may be true it will be a bit unfair, given the relative strength (or lack thereof) of the opposition. He was quietly impressive against the Reds, making his tackles and getting involved with a couple of turnovers, and more of the same will surely be enough to guarantee him a starting spot. Does he deserve to start over Tipuric or O’Brien, on form alone? Probably not. Given his captaincy, will he start anyway? Almost definitely.

Verdict: test starter

Who do you think should start in probably the most competitive area of the tour? Cast your vote and leave any comments below.

Who should start on the flanks for the first test?

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By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

23 thoughts on “Lions test squad predictor: Flankers

  1. O’Brien will probably miss out on starting due to his versatility, as he can play all back row positions, he is an excellent bench option. Croft and Warburton for me. Croft finished the season fantastically and I have a feeling that the line out will play a big part in the test matches – which Croft is essential to. On form I’d go Tipuric, but we all know Gatland will pick Warburton and I don’t have many issues with that.

  2. Gats made a lot of noise before the tour about the captaincy not being that important, and how the armband did not mean a nailed-on test start. If Warburton disappoints again against the Waratahs, it’s time for him to put his money where his mouth is…

  3. Don’t want to see Croft antwhere near the test 15. Not needed as a 3rd lineout jumper, this is something that Warburton does, and does well. The Locks, whoever is selected have proved themselves more than capable in this department. Croft gives away to many penalties. We need the hit them hard 6, O’Brien (1st choice) or Lid’s for these tests.

    1. Waburton may jump a bit in the lineout but not to anything like the same standard as Croft. I’m also not sure where the idea that Croft gives away too many penalties has come from?

      1. Agreed, O’Brien is far more prone to silly penalties than Croft. And re the line-out, Croft is far more dangerous on opposition ball than anyone else.

        1. I don’t think Croft gives away that many penalties. O’brien and Warburton definitely give away more.

          Even though Croft is the best line out forward of the back row the other options are still very good. I’m not sure that i would choose Croft simply for this reason.

          I’m also quite surprised not to see O’brien given a run at 8 hes probably in better form than either of the other two 8s. Obviously Gats sees them as separate positions.

  4. I don’t honestly believe that you can just pick who you would start at 6 + 7, as different combinations rely on cohesiveness not only with the no.8 but also with the playing styles of the rest of the pack. I think we can all agree that all these players on their day are World Class, and will give absolutely everything for the shirt, if they find themselves in the position to do so. IMO, picking either Tipuric or Croft as they are somewhat lightweight in the contact (Compared to the other contenders, don’t get me wrong I’m a huge fan of both) means that you pick a more Ball carrying front 5 and no.8 then you would if you want down the O’Brien or Warburton route.

    This is without a doubt the most exciting battle for positions and my starting test would be

    1. Vunipola
    2. Hibbard
    3. Jones (Only just over Dan Cole)
    4. A-W Jones
    5. O’Connell
    6. O’Brien
    7. Tipuric
    8. Toby (Again, only just)

    Would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this

    1. Looks like a great pack around the park. But i think Gatland will want more of a line out presence.
      Neither of the Flankers are front line jumpers.

      I also agree that I probably wouldn’t want Croft and Tipuric together.

      I’m very intrigued to see Warburton (who i see as a power 7) with Croft (very loose 6). Hopefully this can emulate the Wallace/Croft axis of 09.

      The other argument for Croft is how well his support lines worked with O’driscall.

    2. Having said that i do think that is probably the best back row for open play 6. O’brien (tank) 7. Tipuric (best link man and jackler) 8. Either really. The lineout wouldn’t fall apart I just think Gats will want to push home the set piece advantage.

    3. I can’t see Tipuric and O’Brien giving enough line out options. Croft and Warburton are the best line out flankers, with Croft being miles ahead, so one (or both) or these two are preferable. I would go Croft, Warburton, Falatau.

      I am think that Croft and Warburton are Gatlands preferred choice, and that he is also favouring Heaslip. If tomorrow goes well I believe he will pick those three, but if it is a bit loose around the fringes he will look to bring Falatau in over Heaslip as he does a bit more dirty work.

  5. I think you’ve probably made the most likely choices, however I’m not sure you can necessarily make decisions on the flankers without taking the no.8 position into account. The back row is a collective selection. O’Brien could also play at no.8 which gives another option, particularly if he’s coming off the bench. Dallaglio, Ryan Jones, Richard Hill, Corry, Rodber…they could play in all three positions.

    Question: Is it possible (or indeed ‘fair’) to have Warburton on the bench…or is his role either a starter or not at all?

    1. That’s probably nailed it. Croft, Warbs, Heaslip, O’Brien on the bench.
      Damn tough on Tupi and Fale, they could both have easily made any other test squad, but that’s the Lions for you…

  6. The back row is such a difficult unit to select, and there seem to be two debates – who you would pick, and who you think Gatland will pick.

    – My back row would be SOB, Tipuric and Heaslip.
    – I think Gatland will pick Croft, Warburton and Faletau.

    Gatland arguably has more coaching experience at the top level than I do, but I still think I could do a better job of picking the Test back row!

  7. Have also staked my colours to the Tipuric SoB and Heaslip mast as I think that they have been the best performers so far. Croft on the bench to cover 6 either if SoB goes off or if he moves to replace one of the others.

    Gats has just indicated that Warbs may not be in. Don’t think that Captain is too much of an issue anyway with PoC and BoD playing well. Let’s see how Warbs responds as at his best he is a great player, just not been there on this tour yet.

  8. I agree that this is now looking like the backrow that Gats wants to put out and he is making noises that he hopes they play well tomorrow – if he does then he wins on two counts a) he doesn’t have to answer a gazillion questions about whether he picked the wrong tour captain and b) if Warbs can play well with those two tomorrow then we could be looking at having the best 7 on the pitch in the tests.

    As Staggy said, Gatland has reconfirmed that the captain is not a guaranteed starter – http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/22895822

  9. this is the best game of all to find out if Warburton can be the test 7.

    Against the reds he was outplayed by Robinson – 2nd choice reds flanker behind Gill.
    Gill will likely be the 2nd choice 7 for the Wallabies.

    Warburton will now be facing off against Pat McCutcheon – 2nd choice 7 behind Hooper, who looks likely to be the Wallaby 7.

    If Warburton is outplayed by McCutcheon, then we have a definitive answer as to whether he should be the test 7. if he betters McCutcheon, then he will have come part way to justifying himself. i say part way, because we still have the fact that he did not step up enough against the Reds.

    Its not an easy task for Warbs. I am pretty sure that McCutcheon is a former Aussie 7s captain, and i think he might have been skipper of the Aussie schools.
    He was also the captain of the St Joseph’s College Sydney 1st XV in a year when Kurtley Beale played 10 and Peter Betham played wing.

    1. I still think Warburton will be in the test team. It isn’t really fair to have only given him the chance against good opposition and then saying Tipuric has done really well, because he hasn’t played against any good 7s yet.

      For me, they way he has used Warburton, Croft, Jones, POC, Phillips and even Halfpenny quite sparingly, the suggests that they were earmarked as starters from day 1.

  10. I’ve been really impressed by Tipuric. He genuinely is a good player. He’s a bright rugby man, breaks tackles, offloads, he is for me the best 7 on tour.

    At 6 I’m torn on Croft and O’Brien. I’ve been impressed with O’Brien, one of few Irish players who came out of the 6 Nations looking good. He’s also been great in the Lions games so far. The question is, would you need him alongside a more similar player in Tipuric? I’d personally be thinking that Croft’s speed, lineout work and general work around the park would be worth more alongside Tipuric.

    I’m sorry, I’ve just not seen Warburton look like he could displace any of those 3 players. For me, Croft and Tipuric to start, O’Brien on the bench. Warbs would have to do something this weekend.

    I suspect Gatland will pick Warburton in the end, but whether he’s at 7 with Croft at 6 and Tipuric on the bench or 6 with Tipuric at 7 will be interesting to see.

  11. Backrows a tough one because as a combination you couldn’t play Croft and Tipuric having said that I honestly don’t rate Croft that highly, he’s made a career out of the 2009 tour bit like Heaslip has in recent years, on form Id pick SOB but Gatland will probably go for croft for experience and line out capabilities having said that I rate SOB as a better 6. Really wish Stephen Ferris hadn’t gotten injured, I think he would’ve been immense on the aussie pitches. Ah well these things happen!

    1. Tobe fair, he’s been imperious for Leicester and he’s always turned it ona bit more for England and he seems to find a further gear for the Lions. He has been a cracking player, he’s just been a bit unfortunate to spend a lot of time injured

      Not sure why he can’t play alongside Tipuric. Makes sense to me. Tipuric the strong ball carrying 7 and Croft being the pacy rangy threat. Looks like quality balance to me.

      O’Brien is a quality player, but the question would be, is he too much like Tipuric or Warburton to warrant playing him at 6 and one of them at 7? I suppose it largely depends on what goes on in training

  12. Tipuric 7
    Warbs – 6
    Faletau – 8

    Worked against England in the six nations…

    But in all seriousness I still think Tipuric needs to be in there any way they can fit him in. Less sure about warburton.

  13. The other thing is that Gatland has apparently suggested Warburton is only going to be in the team if he can win the openside. He won’t be squeezed in. Don’t want to guarantee that Gatland won’t change his mind on that front, but it’s been said.

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