Warren Gatland has already shown his flexibility over selection by moving Leigh Halfpenny from wing to full back, a position where he has been outstanding for Wales. It’s a move that makes me wonder just how many full backs will be in the starting Lions XV against Australia on June 23rd.
Full back is the only position where the Lions are strong across all countries. There is Halfpenny and Leigh Byrne for Wales, Ben Foden and Mike Brown for England (Goode’s lack of gas will surely not appeal to Gatland), Stuart Hogg for Scotland and the ‘incumbent’, Ireland’s Rob Kearney, the Lions’ best player four years ago.
Robbie Deans and Australia would kill for a choice like that as they debate whether Kurtley Beale is a long term fly-half or full-back. Gatland’s decision is a different one. How many of the six full-backs will he take to Australia and might all three start the first test, with Kearney wearing 15, say, and Foden and Halfpenny on the wings?
Such flexibility has been a key part of two of the previous three World Cup winning teams. In 2003 Clive Woodward was able to shift Jason Robinson back to 15 after his lack of height was exposed by a cross-kick. But Robinson was happy playing full-back or wing, as any top player should be, and Josh Lewsey was just as able to cover wing.
In 2011 the All Blacks abandoned their traditional big-hitters on the wings, usually islanders or Maori of fearsome physique and scary speed, and went for two ball players. Corey Jane is just as adept playing full back as wing and Richard Kahui plays most of the time in the centre. But when the Australian bombardment came in the semi, Jane and Kahui defused it with nonchalant ease.
Jim Mallinder, Foden’s coach at Northampton, said, “Ben Foden is a full-back and you get more space, time and more ball than you do on the wing. He didn’t look out of place on the wing at all (for England) but we won’t be considering him as a winger. He’s our full-back, that’s his best position but he’s like that, he’ll play anywhere in an England shirt and I thought he did really well playing on the wing."
Mallinder was a full back himself, so he has a feel for the position, but it would be a major surprise if Gatland is similarly reluctant to play his full-backs on the wing. The performances of Halfpenny, Brown, Kearney and Hogg will be a major feature of the opening weekend and Gatland will certainly be considering his wider options.
The Lions coach does like a big ball carrier on the wing, as he has shown by his selections of North and Cuthbert in the past, and Tommy Bowe and North will certainly be Lions contenders. But on Oz’s hard grounds the chasers come up quicker and the ball flies further in the hotter air.
That makes a back three of full backs an extremely attractive option, especially when you are spoiled for choice as the Lions are.
On current form, who would be your pick?