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)