The Lions are undoubtedly one of the great establishments of international rugby with a legacy as palpable as any other team to have played the game. Although a series victory over Australia, South Africa and New Zealand has eluded them in the last three tours they still captivate the imagination of the rugby world. The 2009 series against the Springboks, for many, saved the Lions from slipping away into irrelevance and the tour is often poignantly remembered for the series of ‘what if’ moments which crippled an often dominant Lions team. The 2009 selectors went 180 degrees on the 2005 debacle and trusted in picking young players with a bit of x-factor and youthful exuberance. Gatland should look to do the same; experience is undeniably vital but this should never be at the expense of picking a better player (see Bismarck du Plessis in the 2011 World Cup). The RR pleads with Gatland that he MUST select the following 5 youngsters for the 2013 Australia tour.
Justin Tipuric, flanker, age 23
Tipuric’s performances in the Six Nations were exceptional and he not only demonstrated a hard edge and the work rate expected of an openside flanker, but also rare attacking guile. A key factor in Wales’ transformation from the fragility and anaemia of their opening round loss to Ireland to the eviscerating performance against England, securing an unlikely but ultimately convincing Six Nations trophy, was their ability to accommodate Warburton and Tipuric together in the same line-up. Tipuric’s influence, along with a firing Warburton and Faletau, was best illustrated by the incredibly tenacious period against England which eventually ended up with Tipuric skilfully putting Cuthbert clear to score the coup de grâce. The injury of Stephen Ferris means the Lions face a tough decision about who starts at no.6 with pundits pondering whether a specialist blindside such as Wood or a converted openside such as Warburton or O’Brien should get the nod. Based on this it would not surprise the RR if Gatland is tempted to install the Welsh back row triumvirate for the Lions given how they dismantled England with ease. In the end Tipuric’s dynamism and form mean that he cannot be overlooked for the Lions tour and should be in strong consideration for a spot in the first test line-up.
Stuart Hogg, Fullback, age 20
Anyone who has seen Glasgow play for the last two seasons knows the incredible running ability and speed possessed by Hogg. He has been scoring scorching tries for fun in the Pro12 league. This x-factor has never been in doubt but for some time critics have pointed out that Hogg needs development in other areas crucial to being an international level fullback, particularly tactical kicking and defence. However, based on the Six Nations, it is fair to say that Hogg has made strides that the RR had anticipated would take another two or three seasons. His kicking out of hand, on the whole, was brilliant with Hogg consistently managing distances of 40 metres or greater. Defensively he was sound and doesn’t lack for courage under fire – technically he may need further refinement, but there should be few trust issues with Hogg at the back. On the basis of this, coupled with the fact that Australia is likely to have a number of game-breakers in their squad, Hogg should go to Australia with the Lions. A scenario with Halfpenny on the wing and Hogg at fullback, as unlikely as it is to happen, would enthral attack-minded rugby fans and would give the Lions an attacking edge they may lack with the more conservative line-up Gatland is likely to pick.
Mako Vunipola, loosehead prop, age 22
Few positions were under the microscope more than the front row in this year’s Six Nations, particularly after the Welsh scrum destroyed all-comers in devastating fashion. Undoubtedly the likes of Jenkins and Jones from Wales, and Healy (Ireland) and Corbisiero (England), if fit, are guaranteed to win selection. But after the obvious choices there is a lot of room for debate as to who should fill the other spots. Perhaps as many as 8 props will be selected for the tour so the likes of Ross, Cole, Marler, Vunipola, Murray and Grant will warrant consideration. Of the group, a case can be made that Vunipola represents the best all-round option to understudy Jenkins. Indeed Vunipola’s scrummaging is still a work-in-progress and these issues will concern Gatland, but his work rate and ability around the field give the Lions a player ready to neutralise the mobility of the Wallabies forward pack. Vunipola has shown consistently since his English debut against Fiji that he has the temperament for test football and is progressing at a pleasing rate for someone so young in a position which has tended to favour wily and aged practitioners. Based on this, Vunipola should definitely win selection in order to complement the other front-rowers, injecting some youthful vigour into an often rigid and mechanical position.
Owen Farrell, fly-half, age 21
Although Farrell has already notched an IRB world player of the year nomination in his young career few would argue that he is a complete player yet. His form has generally been inconsistent and he has struggled at times to nail down the number 10 jersey for both club and country. This should not be unexpected given that Farrell is still only 21 playing in the most tactically demanding position in rugby. Fly-half is one of the more difficult positions for Gatland to pick; perhaps only Sexton represents a dead certainty but his status as a test ‘lock’ has dissipated in recent months. Beyond Sexton you would figure the remaining two positions will be fought over from a pool of players including Biggar, Flood, Farrell and Jackson. The hardly inspiring list means that there could be two youngsters deputising Sexton – not ideal and perhaps enough of a concern for Gatland to place an SOS to Monsieur Wilkinson or, gulp, Ronan O’Gara. Biggar or Farrell is one likely scenario in Gatland’s selection process and the RR believes Farrell should edge Biggar based on his past resume. Farrell may lack the dexterity of a Cooper or a Cruden, but he has proven he can get the English backline firing and the area of the game where he excels, namely kicking out of hand and at goal, rarely malfunctions.
Conor Murray, Scrum-half, age 23
The resurrection of Mike Phillips in the second half of the Six Nations from the player that took an utterly gutless defensive line on Kurtley Beale’s heart-breaking winner in early December to the player who rediscovered his panache and power is perhaps one of the best stories of the Six Nations. Subsequently Phillips should be a shoo-in for the starting scrum half jersey in Australia. Beyond Phillips, Gatland will likely choose between Laidlaw, Youngs, Care and Murray for the two remaining spots (although four scrum-halves were chosen in 2009!). In what turned out to be a calamitous Six Nations for Ireland, Conor Murray’s reputation was probably enhanced with a string of consistent performances in an otherwise faltering team. Murray has matured nicely since his impressive cameos in the World Cup in 2011 and is probably the first Irish scrum-half to unequivocally nail down the no.9 jersey since Peter Stringer’s run in the team in the early 2000’s. Murray’s strengths are in his defence and sniping ability, key areas of a scum half’s game which often go unmentioned or overlooked. His passing and kicking ability are where they should be for international rugby and he seems to have a decent head on his shoulders. Murray should be a no-brainer for Gatland and if Phillips was to get injured he would be a capable replacement, not to mention a previous winner against Australia.
Has RR identified the youngsters to make the difference for the Lions? Comments below…