With the Lions having played 4 games on tour so far, and with only 3 to go before they take on the Wallabies in the first test, I thought I’d just examine how they seem to be shaping up; what sort of game they’re likely to play in the tests and which players are likely to make the first XV.
Four out of four
The Lions put in an assured performance on Tuesday as they defeated a Combined Country XV by 64 points to 0 and this was their fourth victory in 4 games. The Reds test last Saturday aside; all of the games have been pretty comfortable victories for the Lions.
Who has put their hand up?
One of the massive difficulties facing Warren Gatland is the fact that so many players are playing well. Before the games began, many people probably had a fairly good idea of the players they thought were likely to be selected for the test team, but with most players having had the opportunity to showcase their talent, the starting XV for that crucial first test against the Wallabies is very much up in the air. Whilst it is a difficulty for Gatland, there’s no doubt he’ll be delighted with the performance of his squad, and a large number of players playing well is a pretty nice problem to have.
On the basis of the four games we’ve seen so far, I think there a few players who have definitely played their way into the test starting line up. One such player is the abrasive scrum half Mike Phillips. Whilst rivals Youngs and Murray have played extremely well in patches, it was always likely that Phillips would retain the No.9 shirt that he excelled in 4 years ago in South Africa. Phillips hit the ground running with 2 tries against the Barbarians, and it now seems that the Lions coaching set up are using him sparingly to try and ensure that he isn’t lost to injury.
Another player who is all but nailed on as a starter is that man Brian O’Driscoll, who has excelled whenever he has been on the pitch. His leadership is likely to be crucial given that the make up of the test team will probably be pretty young.
Moving along the backline, it’s clear that Leigh Halfpenny will start the tests if fit, and following his 11 out of 11 kicking display against Western Force; it’s not exactly difficult to see why that is. Halfpenny also grabbed himself a great try against the Country XV, which will certainly have helped his cause. The footballing full back is highly likely to be joined in the back three by at least one of his Welsh colleagues, with George North’s skill and physicality proving to be one of the highlights on tour so far.
A few difficult selections…
Whilst many of us could probably have a good go at predicting the bulk of the players who will feature in the backline against Australia, the pack is an absolute minefield. Two props have had to go home, which probably leaves Mako Vunipola in pole position to start at loosehead, with Corbisiero and Grant trying to make up for lost time after arriving late to the tour. Many would see Hibbard as the natural selection at hooker, but given the proclivity of the Lions lineout to shake, the choice of who dons the 2 shirt is not an easy one.
The question of who plays in the second row is a very difficult one to answer, with none of the second rows really putting in barnstorming performances so far. Paul O’Connell’s lineout prowess may well justify his selection, but Gatland will certainly want to pair him with a dynamic and hardworking ball carrier – the jury is still certainly out in the boiler room.
Perhaps the most difficult of selections is in the back row, with every player who has played so far putting in a good case for selection. Given that Sam Warburton is captain you would presume he’d start in the 7 shirt, a selection that would be very hard on Justin Tipuric given how well he has played so far. There is the option of putting Warburton at blindside, but the skipper has even stiffer competition there, with O’Brien, Croft and Lydiate all putting their hands up. Many believed that Toby Faletau would walk into the number 8 shirt, but Jamie Heaslip appears to have had a new lease of life that could see the Irishman retain the shirt he wore in 2009.
Saturday may tell us more…
Last Saturday saw the Lions battle to victory against a good Queensland Reds side, and this Saturday sees them take on the Waratahs – another game that is likely to be a test for the men from Britain and Ireland. We may well see a fairly full strength side put out against the Waratahs, as Gatland will certainly want to keep up the winning momentum; so Saturday may be a good opportunity to ascertain who is likely to start for the Lions against the Wallabies the week after. With only one warm up game left, things are getting serious; the true contest draws closer, and we can only wait with bated breath for the spectacle that will unfold.