In this article I have put together a composite selection of the backs I believe will go on the plane to New Zealand in June 2017. As before, I would like to state this is what I think we will see not necessarily what I would like to see.
Let’s start with the half backs who will be tasked with controlling the game.
Possibly the form scrum half in world rugby, Connor Murray is one of the few who should be assured of his place. He’s a physical and aggressive scrum half who frequently gets under opposition skin. However unlike other scrum halves of this nature he has all of the skills to be a top class 9 – a fast accurate pass, he can snipe and break tackles and defensively he is as solid as they come. His tactical kicking is also an important part of the Irish game and like the other 9’s in the squad his ability to accurately kick to compete could be hugely important in the Lions ability to drive New Zealand back and exit their own red zone.
Another in form man who has had a wonderful resurgence under Eddie Jones is Ben Youngs. His sniping around the fringes, early recognition of space and on point box kicking brings him in as a contender.
Rhys Webb is a favourite of Gatland and in form he is another top quality operator and an opportunist player, I believe he will be the man to take the final scrum half berth.
In: Conor Murray, Ben Youngs and Rhys Webb
Unlucky to miss out: Danny Care, Greig Laidlaw, Gareth Davies, Kieran Marmion
Another area where Gatland is blessed with options.
In Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell he has 2 of the fiercest competitors in the game and 2 players with the will to do anything to win. Both are extremely confrontational in defence and nerveless under pressure. Both can steer their teams around the park and have exceptional decision making abilities. It’s just impossible to look past them for the Lions 10 jerseys.
The final berth for me will belong to George Ford who, while offering more of an attacking threat, has also developed a more mature reading of the game and more consistency in his decision making.
Farrell being able to play in the centres makes the choice of all 3 a strong possibility, and his ability to keep the score board ticking over and nailing the pressure kicks makes him an odds on favourite to start somewhere.
In: Jonathan Sexton, Owen Farrell and George Ford
Unlucky to miss out: Dan Biggar, Finn Russell
Lots of strong options in here so it is possible that it will come down to the style of play that Gatland opts for. A more expansive game may mean Farrell and his distribution at 12. A more physical game could bring in the likes of Stuart McCloskey, Manu Tuilagi or Jamie Roberts. I believe we will see the former as the tactical approach.
As Farrell is already in the squad, I have included 3 specialist centres.
Robbie Henshaw is the best combination of power and guile on offer, as well as having nimble footwork and good handling skills. For all of these reasons and his relationship with Sexton he is in the squad.
Next up is my “bolter” Gary Ringrose, he offers a different threat and has a wonderful reading of the game. Importantly he is also able to play in either centre position something that became an issue on the previous Lions tour when only Roberts was a recognised international 12. However this has been the decision I was least sure of with Scott Williams offering similar skills but there is almost always a bolter and I think Ringrose has the best chance from players currently on the international radar. It’s difficult to see Gatland not including any of the 3 Welsh centres (Davies, Roberts, Williams) but Ringroses ability to use footwork to get his body between defenders and through the contact is a skill reminiscent of Brian O’Driscoll in his early days and gives him the best chance of many.
The final man, Jonathan Joseph, has been the heartbeat of England’s defensive efforts this season. While we all know what he can do in attack, he is the perfect man to carry out a high pressure defensive effort – as proven by the amount of tries he scores off of opposition errors. His pace also affords the ability to back off and recover, holding out the opposition when they have an overlap.
Jonathon Joseph – excellent defensive reads
In: Robbie Henshaw, Gary Ringrose and Jonathan Joseph
Unlucky to miss out: Stuart McCloskey, Manu Tuilagi, Jamie Roberts, Huw Jones, Elliot Daly
In comparison to the rest of the squad this is one of the weakest areas of the team.
It is also one of the areas I think Gatland will stick to his tried and tested with Leigh Halfpenny being selected. We all know what Halfpenny offers, a reliable boot, safe under a high ball and always makes his tackles. So this is an understandable if uninspiring choice off the back of a poor autumn series for Wales.
His Wales teammate Liam Williams on the other hand had a great Autumn showing similar attributes but coupled with his trademark aggression and flair. One of the best strike runners in the Northern Hemisphere it’s hard to see how Williams won’t make the plane.
My final choice for fullbacks is Stuart Hogg. The player of the 6 nations who despite his tender years has a game breaking ability and regularly keeps Scotland in games they are in danger of slipping out of.
On the wings I again think George North (if fit) will make the plane on the back of past glories and the damage he can do if he is given the opportunity, his ability to also cover 13 offers to same scope Tommy Bowe did on the previous two Lions tours.
I also believe the England winger’s Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson with their complementary styles, ability to beat a defender and their nose for the try line are going to be taken as part of the tour.
Finally the Irish utility back Simon Zebo will offer an option to play wing or fullback and offers a real playmaking role and excellent ball skills as well as the ability to just pull somthing out the hat. No one ever beat the All Blacks by playing safe, so Zebo goes.
In: Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, Stuart Hogg, Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson and Simon Zebo.
Unlucky to miss out: Andrew Trimble, Mike Brown, Sean Maitland, Elliot Daly, Keith Earls, Rob Kearny
This would therefore mean the backs in my predicted squad would look like the below, with Owen Farrell travelling as a 10/12 and although there were some tight calls to make I believe this will be very close to the squad chosen (barring injuries).
Scrum Half: Connor Murray, Ben Youngs, Rhys Webb
Fly Half: Jonathan Sexton, George Ford, Owen Farrell
Centre: Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph, Gary Ringrose
Back 3: Jack Nowell, George North, Anthony Watson, Simon Zebo, Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny