Seven sometimes six


Much of the attention in the Lions squad debate has focused on two related subjects: who will captain the side and who will Warren Gatland choose as his starting seven? With Chris Robshaw and Sam Warburton falling into both categories it is easy to understand why these two questions have been central to many Lions squad discussions.

It could, however, be on the other flank that the famous touring side actually have a more pressing concern. A year ago this was certainly not the case.

Dan Lydiate, with his trademark tree-chopping tackling technique, was part of Wales’ Six Nations Grand Slam win and voted Player of the Tournament. Across the Irish Sea, Stephen Ferris, a Lions tourist to South Africa in 2009, put in a string of impressive performances in Ulster’s run to the 2012 Heineken Cup final. And Tom Croft was back to his best, dancing past French defenders in Paris to score an excellent try, very much reminiscent of the form he displayed back in 2009, when the Leicester Tiger was capped twice, and scored two test tries, for the Lions.

Worryingly for Gatland all three players are either in the early stages of a comeback from a lengthy spell on the sidelines, or still injured. Twelve months ago the trio were guaranteed to make the touring party and the fight to see who would start the first test would have been one of the great subplots of the Lions tour, had it taken place last year.

Will these three stars of British and Irish rugby, with contrasting skill sets, be match fit and sufficiently battle hardened for a gruelling six week tour to Australia, via Hong Kong?

Croft’s chances of making another tour are being downplayed by club and country and even he has admitted that England’s trip to Argentina is a more realistic target. A precise return date for Ferris is unknown but he is hoping to feature in Ulster’s blockbuster Heineken Cup quarter final tie against Saracens at Twickenham, in early April. Likewise, the whispers from the valleys are that Dan Lydiate is close to a return to action and there are even reports that he could feature for Wales against England in the last weekend of 2013 Six Nations matches.

But time to impress the selectors is running out fast. If Lydiate does not feature in the latter stages of the Six Nations then he will not participate in a particularly important contest until the Lions tour. For Ferris and Croft the situation is less of a concern, as Ulster and Leicester are still in the Heineken Cup and very much in contention for playoff success in their respective RaboDirect Pro12 and Aviva Premiership competitions. Lydiate’s Newport Gwent Dragons side, on the other hand, are out of the Amlin Challenge Cup and lie eleventh in the Pro12, although playing in any match would at least allow him to prove his match fitness.

An interesting knock-on effect of these injuries is that it might mean that Warren Gatland will avoid having to justify excluding certain players from the squad, or test team, who he does not consider as out and out opensides.


Kelly Brown, Sean O’Brien and Chris Robshaw are all performing well for their respective countries and starting as sevens during this year’s Six Nations, but they could easily start on the blindside for the Lions in the summer. Many feel, unfairly or irrelevantly in my view, that these three players are not typical openside flankers but if Gatland does choose a Warburton or Tipuric figure as his starting seven, to counter Australia’s fetchers in David Pocock or Michael Hooper, Brown, O’Brien or Robshaw could easily be shifted to the other side of the scrum, where they are likely to be up against Dave Dennis or Scott Higginbotham.

Other candidates include Tom Wood, who is arguably the form blindside in European rugby, ever since a man of the match performance in England’s win over the All Blacks in December, although he is likely to start at number eight for England against France again on Saturday.

A rejuvenated Ryan Jones, one of the few 2005 Lions tourists to return home with an enhanced reputation, is in consideration and as the squad will have very limited past Lions tour / test match experience, the Ospreys star could be a valuable asset down under. Peter O’Mahony, James Haskell and the impressive Robert Harley are currently starting at six for the other three Lions nations but each will have to put in a series of standout performances in their remaining Six Nations fixtures to have any chance of making the tour.

It will be fascinating to see how this aspect of the Lions selection debate plays out. If Lydiate, Ferris and Croft are not fit, or deemed as too much of a risk to make the trip, as Brown, O’Brien and Robshaw can cover both flanking positions, Gatland would at least have significant variety in styles and several plan B options if picking an out-and-out seven is not successful early on down under.

The calibre of the names floating around as blindside candidates make it not so much of a major worry but Gatland will rue the fact that Lydiate, Ferris and Croft, the three most consistent and ‘genuine’ blindsides of British and Irish rugby in recent years, were not fully fit at the start of 2013.

by Alastair Pickering (@AMP_Rugby)

10 thoughts on “Seven sometimes six

  1. If Lydiate or Ferris can get back fit then they both go for me. I would be happy with either of them starting.

    If not; I would play Wood. He is next in line in my opinion and a very good player.

    I actually don’t think Robshaw is not a 6. In my opinion I would have him at 7 and as captain.

  2. I think you need to take players who are playing well in their position, but can be moved. And also players who have been playing consistently well for the majority of a season. So for me Croft, Ferris and Lydiate would need lots of game time.
    At the moment I’m not even sure Warburton should be in the squad. He’s not been on form, and when he does play, gets injured too regularly. Although this is not his fault, what would be the point of taking him if he’s not match fit, and not on form. Especially as there are several other players playing better in the same position. Tipuric, Brown, Robshaw and O’brien have all been on better form playing at 7 than Warburton.

  3. Definitely wouldn’t take Warburton on current form.

    Really hope that both Lydiate and Ferris are fit. Would probably pick Ferris first for his power with the ball.

    Croft is not a ‘genuine’ blindside as he does not do the hard work that blind-sides should, but hangs about on the wing pretending he’s one of the backs.

    If the Lions are going to beat the Aussies, it won’t be about picking a 7 to counter Pocock/Hooper. It’ll be about picking a pack that are both mobile and big to get to the breakdown quickly and smash the Aussies off the ball


    Healey (regrettably)
    Ferris / Lydiate

  4. I know Ross Rennie’s injured, but surprised not to even hear him mentioned in the passing. A quality openside.

  5. Not overly convinced by the article I’m afraid. First of all the captain should not be anyone of the above, its BOD all the way. Secondly, on the blindside there is no contest…at all…its Tom Wood. He’s excellent in his favoured position, very good as cover for 4/5 and 8 and his attitude/workrate/rugby nouse and ability, exceed every other six in Europe at the moment and he is still on his comeback trail.

    Next up, if you look at number of tackles and carries for the 6N so far for the 7’s Robshaw is out in front. Ferris, Tipuric and Lydiate are all out of sorts and not firing at the moment and for a Lions tour, FORM is all important with attitude a close second. Robshaw gets the ticket ahead of those three, he is doing it week in week out and getting better it seems on every outing and he has more to offer. Pocock is a beast of player and 1 on 1 will beat any other 7 on the planet on his day (which is most days annoyingly!!) but thankfully rugby is a team game, as the kiwis know, which is why they always manage to nullify Pocock enough at the break downs to win 9 out of 10 of their last matches, by working in 2’s and 3’s (even with the great Richie)..if you have 1 man at the breakdown..your screwed and most likely by Pocock. So the fact that Wood and Robshaw compliment eachother very well means they will meet fire with fire and 6 and 7 are done and dusted.

    Lastly number 8, immediate reaction is Falatau, he is being consistent but of late has lost just a fraction of his dynamism, but I put that down to the mood and beatings the Welsh have taken, with a bit of confidence he will be right back. I back the young fella to have a wonderful summer and progress his game even more. Subs?? this is where Tipuric, Morgan and Lydiate take up the baton, a trio who are not what you would call a weak back row!! But those picked ahead of them just offer that little bit more….Ferris?? nah..whining too much and if you want muscle..Haskell has it (although I want his feet strapped to the ground but a concrete block so his ego doesn’t resurface…he is a better player under lancaster and remembering he has stuff to learn everyday…)

    1. How about…

      6. Wood
      7. Robshaw
      8. Sean O’brien

      The 3 form back row players and also looks very balanced.

      1. have to agree with you both. i think this is a good option. i think faletau has looked alright, but is a bit off form. heaslip has been out of sorts. as has denton.

        i think the work of wood and robshaw would allow o’brien to get his hand on the ball and run all day long.

        then imaging bringing someone like faletau or morgan on at 50/60 mins… the aussies would hate it!

  6. well, they are all good problems.

    I was more worried about 8, Faletau is playing some really impressive rugby in a team that isn’t.

    You have to pick on form and injuries are heartbreaking for those concerned. Lydaite has shown his value by not playing, I’m a really big fan of his, he was awesome against AUS when Wlaes went down there.

    At the mo, it is 6 – o’brian 7 – Robshaw and 8- faletau for me.

    take Brown, Wood and Hisleap for cover, but there is a lot of 6N left for people to make a case, Ryan Jones is high on that list, if scotland beat Ireland maybe Brown moves above O’Brain, may be even Morgan could challenge for a squad place, 8 is a problem.

    Second row is just as competitive, wouldn’t like to be mr Gatlin at the moment. The centre positions are up for grabs as nobody is playing really well.

    Fullback seemed a done deal but Carney’s bad form and Hogg’s explosion has slightly opened it up, I would go halfpenny at the mo, but Hogg has some serious pace, if he keeps scoring tries and scotland win 2 more games, I think he would be hard to ignore.

    Visser, North and Cuthburt on the wings no questions there, unlucky Zebo but like I said injures are cruel.

  7. ferris and lydiate are both fighting against the clock. i am really struggling to see them making the lions tour. i think if they do, then even gatland will have to admit that he is picking them partially on reputation (because they just wont have had the time to show they are on top form)

    right now Wood has got to be the 1st choice 6 (maybe O’brien challenging, even though he has played at 7). even with a fully fit croft, i still think wood has first choice at the england 6 shirt. plus the combination of wood and robshaw (the duracell twins as jerry guscott calls them) should be pretty effective against pocock or hooper. in fact, it may force the wallabies to pick both players, thereby losing out on either the ball carrying of Palu/Higginbotham or the breakdown work of Dennis.

    i think that the wood, robshaw and o’brien at this moment in time are certain to travel. leaving 1 flanker spot (maybe 2 at a push) for all others (ferris, lydiate, croft, jones, harley, brown, rennie, barclay, tipuric, warburton, haskell, o’mahony, henry). then he will probably take 2 8’s – would be out of morgan, faletau, heaslip, denton, beattie.

    there are so many class players, who when on form could be outstanding. i havent even mentioned a fair few names who could maybe even make it on as “bolters”

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