Lions teams have always boasted formidable second rows, and the position has a long history of being vital to any winning Lions tour, with names like Willie John McBride and Martin Johnson performing such heroics that have led to them being forever entwined with the Lions legend. This year’s crop might not enjoy the same prestigious reputations as the locks of some of the past tours, but there is certainly quality in depth, and Warren Gatland will have the unenviable task of picking between them.
The Welshman was a surprise selection for many when his name was initially announced, but has acquitted himself admirably so far on the tour. His performances have been exactly as you would expect, workmanlike and industrious, and none could criticise the effort he has played with. That being said, he has failed to contribute significantly as a ball carrier or as a viable option at the lineout (some of which can be attributed to the poor lineout throwing of Rory Best and Richard Hibbard in the Western Force and Combined Country games respectively) and will likely miss out on a place in the test team.
Verdict: not in the test squad
Another surprising selection given that the lock was injured for much of the build-up to the tour, and that his form in the Six Nations prior to his injury was also highly questionable, Gray was almost certainly selected on the back of his performances in 2012, as opposed to 2013. Similarly to Evans, Gray has failed to shine at lineout time due to the accuracy issues the Lions have endured up until now, but has shown glimpses of his ability with ball in hand, albeit against lesser opponents. Some pundits have Gray optimistically pencilled in alongside Paul O’Connell in the test XV, but this seems like a stretch, particularly with the Lions continuing to struggle at the lineout, and potentially pushing him below both Alun Wyn Jones and Geoff Parling in the pecking order to partner O’Connell.
Verdict: possibly in the test squad
Alun Wyn Jones
With some initial concerns over O’Connell’s ability to last all three tests, Jones was suggested by many to be one of the first names on Gatland’s team sheet, but with the Irishman impressing so far, it now seems as if Jones is truly in a battle to partner the veteran in the Lions’ engine room. The Osprey has been in good form so far on the tour, and is arguably the best all-round second row available to Gatland, being more than competent at the lineout, breakdown, and with ball in hand. Jones is probably in pole position to partner O’Connell as things currently stand, but could be challenged by the more athletic Gray, or the lineout maestro that is Parling, especially if both Hibbard and Best continue to struggle with their throwing accuracy.
Verdict: probable test starter
Gatland could yet regret not naming the Irishman his captain, as current captain Sam Warburton struggled to regain his form in his first game on the tour, whilst O’Connell has transitioned into Lions duty seamlessly, picking up exactly where he left off in South Africa four years ago. Concerns over his age and/or durability have been unfounded so far, and barring an injury between now and the first test, he is almost certain to feature in the Lions’ second row. In addition to his considerable ability as a player, O’Connell also brings a wealth of leadership experience, and offers an alternative to Gatland if the coach decides to either not start tour captain Warburton, or replace him in the back row during the game.
Verdict: nailed-on test starter
Whilst Parling is a good ball carrier and tackler, there is no denying that his speciality, and therefore key to potentially pushing for a place in the test XV, is his ability at the lineout. Perhaps the most gifted lineout forward in the Lions squad, narrowly edging out club colleague Tom Croft, Parling could be the salvation to Gatland’s lineout nightmares. The Englishman has impressed in his opportunities thus far, and with Tom Youngs emerging as a surprise contender to be the starting hooker, Gatland could be eager to pair Parling and Youngs, and exploit the wealth of chemistry the two players have, given they play together week in week out at both national and club level. Parling will most likely start the first test on the bench, but could be promoted to the test XV if the Lions are given a torrid time at the lineout in the first test.
Verdict: probably in the test squad
Over to you now – who would you pick in the engine room for the first test?
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)