With just one more warm-up match to go, the likely starting XV for the Lions’ first test against Australia is starting to take shape. Much has been said about the lack of high-quality opposition that the Lions have faced during their tour matches so far, but I’m not so sure. True, the Western Force and the Combined Country XV were pretty feeble, but last Saturday, the Queensland Reds played at a very high tempo, and asked all sorts of questions defensively, while this Saturday, the NSW Waratahs, while possibly a little low on quality, certainly gave the Lions a thorough physical examination. Based on the first 5 matches, this is the team I would select for the opening test.
Full Back: Leigh Halfpenny
Not even a decision to make on this one. Halfpenny is playing out of his skin. Obviously his goalkicking is a factor (hopefully he can have as much of an influence as the last Welshman to wear number 15 for the Lions, Neil Jenkins), but his tackling is immense, he hardly ever drops the ball, and runs superb angles when entering the attacking line, rather as Lee Byrne used to do. Stuart Hogg hasn’t played badly, and was impressive at stand-off in midweek, while Rob Kearney has only played the last 20 minutes against the Waratahs, where he looked a little off the pace.
Wings: Alex Cuthbert and Simon Zebo
This selection is obviously assuming that George North is unfit; otherwise the giant Welshman would be in instead of Zebo. The Lions aren’t blessed with outstanding wingers on this tour. Sean Maitland rather played himself out of contention with an anonymous performance against the Waratahs, where his main contribution was to miss a tackle in the build-up to the first try. Cuthbert is shaky defensively (not in terms of tackling, but more his positioning and the discipline to hold the defensive line), but is an excellent finisher and of course a hard man to stop once he gets going. I wasn’t quite as overwhelmed by Zebo’s performance against the Waratahs as many others, but he is a livewire going forward, and has the ability to create something out of nothing. A strong performance from Christian Wade, should he play against the Brumbies, would put him right into the mix.
Centres: Jonathan Davies and Brian O’Driscoll
After a slow start, Jamie Roberts looked like he was coming into some form against the Waratahs, so his injury has come at an unfortunate time. Without him, the Lions will obviously lack a huge ball-carrying presence, but they will also lose his defensive organisation and ferocious tackling. However, Davies has been highly impressive all tour, with even his previously suspect distribution looking good, and O’Driscoll has done what O’Driscoll has done all his career – find space with his quick feet, distribute the ball quickly, offload intelligently, win turnovers, and bring some class to the midfield. Even though his level of performance has dropped steadily probably over the last 4 years, he is still a staggeringly good player. Manu Tuilagi may miss out through injury, but even if fit, I think he would be better as an impact player.
Fly-half: Jonny Sexton
Ever since his mediocre performance against the Barbarians, Owen Farrell has been playing catch-up. Since then he has played well, and kicked excellently, but his distribution isn’t as smooth as Sexton’s, he always seems to take that split-second longer to get his pass away, and his short fuse may get the Lions into trouble. Despite being targeted by the opposition, Sexton has looked a class apart throughout the tour.
Scrum-half: Mike Phillips
Phillips has been the test number 9-in-waiting since the very start of the tour, and his performances have lived up to that billing. He has been combative, swift in his passing, and strong in defence (witness his try-saving hit on giant lock Will Skelton against the Waratahs). Perhaps we haven’t seen him dart around the fringes as much as usual, but that may be down to the Lions’ game-plan, which seems to be to get the ball wide as much as possible. Much as I don’t rate Ben Youngs, he has performed well so far, grabbing a crucial opportunist try against the Reds, but he’ll have to make do with a place on the bench.
Loose-Head: Mako Vunipola
Tricky one this; had Gethin Jenkins or Cian Healy avoided injury, then I don’t think Vunipola would have been near the starting XV. However, he has been consistently prominent in the loose, been an invaluable ball-carrier, and looked solid in the scrum (his supposed weakness, although in Australia you’re never going to get really tested there). Ideally, he would be an impact player, but with Alex Corbisiero starting the tour slowly, and Ryan Grant being even more of a specialist scrummager than Adam Jones, I would give the Tongan-born bruiser the nod.
Hooker: Tom Youngs
One of the positions where the Lions are not blessed with an outstanding candidate, Youngs gets my vote as hooker because so far he has been the most reliable throwing in at the lineout. The worry is that during the Six Nations, this looked to be the weakest part of his game, and the opposition haven’t really targeted the Lions lineout yet. Richard Hibbard has made some hard yards with the ball in hand but his throwing has been ropey, while Rory Best hasn’t shown up enough in the loose.
Tight-Head: Adam Jones
A very close call this between Jones and Dan Cole. Cole is an animal at the breakdown, and a famously gritty scrummager, but the Lions’ scrum has looked more solid with Jones at the helm, while his tackling is immense, and he has shown some deft hands in the loose, even popping up at scrum-half on occasions.
Locks: Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones
This is where selection starts to get tricky. All 5 of the second rowers on tour have made a case for inclusion; Ian Evans gets through an enormous amount of work on the floor; Richie Gray is an athletic runner, and useful in the breakdown; Geoff Parling is a master at the lineout, decoding the Queensland Reds’ calls and stealing numerous balls. However, the two most experienced players have been outstanding so far. Wyn Jones always makes yards with the ball in hand, tackles like a lumberjack, and is solid at the lineout, while O’Connell has shown his full range of skills, stealing at the breakdown, offloading, and shuffling the ball on quickly twice against the Waratahs to create attacking positions. He is also a born leader, and his experience could be vital.
Back Row: Tom Croft, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau
I really don’t envy Warren Gatland the job of deciding who to start at back row. I am aware that in all probability he will play Sam Warburton at 7, but to me he has looked a little undercooked, despite playing the full 80 against the Waratahs. Apart from maybe Dan Lydiate, every single back-rower has made an extremely strong case to be picked in the test team. Tipuric edges out Warburton because in every game he plays, he is one of the best players on the park, and because he has been lightning quick at the breakdown. I think Faletau should play rather than Jamie Heaslip, because I feel the Lions will need his ball-carrying abilities, and Heaslip, while outstanding against the Western Force, was less prominent against the more physical Waratahs. The toughest choice was leaving out Sean O’Brien. He is a monster ball carrier, has form against the Wallabies, having destroyed them in the 2011 World Cup, and plays with so much heart. However, I think Croft’s extra pace, ability in the lineout, and work at the breakdown will prove more useful.
So there we are. For the record, my replacements would be: Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Sean O’Brien, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi (if fit, Stuart Hogg if not). In all probability my opinion will change after the game against the Brumbies on Tuesday, and who knows, there may be more injury problems to contend with, but I can’t wait for what will probably be an incredibly tense series.