There’s a lot of debate around concerning the Lions first XV Test selection and how it was derived. Here’s my analysis of how the first XV came about.
The Lions have lost a few from the front row ranks, definitely more so than from anywhere else. This is a bit careless, since Gatland identified this as the key area.
Dylan Hartley, Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins may well have been the Test-starting front row. But no matter, plenty more where they came from. Here’s what they’ve come up with:
1. Corbisiero – The consensus before the tour was that Vunipola was an impact player, best coming on later for his work in the loose. Vunipola looked great to me, but I am convinced the selection committee think that he’s not experienced enough to survive the technical challenge imposed by the experienced Wallabies front three.
That left the race for this spot a contest between Grant and Corbisiero.
I really rate Grant, but he’s looked pretty woeful in the loose since he showed up. That shiner he picked up against the Brumbies can’t be helping either.
Corbisiero is a solid selection, good in the tight and handy around the park.
2. Youngs – Frankly, he was probably the third choice for Gats, as he’s short at 5’9″ and lighter than the others. Gats likes em chunky.
But, since Hibbard and Best continue to demonstrate to young hookers everywhere that if you can’t throw in at the line-out, then you don’t get picked for the team, he’s in. Nippy around the park, too, as an ex-centre three-quarter.
3. Adam Jones – He’s a rock. Don’t let the shonky perm put you off. He’s got the experience, he’s got the skills and he’s got the reputation. He possesses the sort of leadership required to bind the disparate personnel of the Lions together.
When the going gets tough, you know Adam J will be there to put himself in the firing line. The other chaps, Cole and Stevens, are alright too, but Jones is a cut above.
The reason the Lions need a good thrower is because the lineout is the Lions’ main strength. This is why it was so gobsmackking to see the wheels come off against the Brumbies. Three ‘not-straights’ and five other losses weren’t what the guvnor wanted to see one game away from the first Test.
The lineout personnel are all huge. Gray is 6’10” and still can’t get a game. Parland is an awesome line-out player and he’s not in either. That’s because 4. O’Connell and 5. Alan-Wyn Jones are great jumpers too. And they’re so aggressive it’s scary just watching them on the telly.
Both of them have had half-a-season off, so they’re relatively fresh. You get a lot of leadership out of O’Connell and Jones is a fully switched on psycho. At least that’s according to the Welsh boys who avoid him like the plague in tackling practice.
There’s a preponderous amount of talent in this department for the Lions. Yes, I know you Southern Hemisphere types like to think you’re blessed with the advantage in this area, and I reckon you have the edge, too, in terms of jackalling and making pilfers.
But the Lions have some power, threat and enterprise in there as well. The tough bit has been getting the blend right, which is what Gatland is looking for – not necessarily the best six, seven or eight.
Tipuric’s a faster, more natural seven, while O’Brien is a rampaging ball of destruction. Faletau puts in a lot of work and has great ball-handling skills. Lydiate doesn’t quite look ready yet.
6. Croft – An excellent lineout option, this is probably why he’s in. He’s faster than you might think too. And a decent ball-winner. Tends to hang out wide though, which is not everybody’s idea of what a blind-side flanker should be doing.
7. Warburton – Mobile, hard and resolute, but not as mobile, hard and resolute as some of the others. But Sam isn’t in because of those traits.
He’s in because of his chat with the referees. Always respectful, always listening to the ref, always the honest broker. A great leader.
8. Heaslip – He’s a big strong boy who gets in a lot of carries. He always makes metres with ball in hand. He’s usually up there in the tackle stats as well.
And if you still don’t respect those skills, then remember he was sent off against New Zealand for kneeing Richie McCaw. What more do you Aussies want?
9. Phillips – Big and chunky, he’s looked a natural for the Lions nine shirt since the Baabaas game.
Despite his alleged lack of passing skills, his size gets him in straight away. Leads the pack from the front, like a ninth forward. Youngs distribution looked poor versus the Brumbies, and Murray just hasn’t looked himself.
10. Sexton – At the moment he’s playing like he owns the park. He has been bossing the boys around and using all his experience. He hasn’t had to worry about his place-kicking either, so time to concentrate on his game.
Farrell hasn’t looked too bad to me either, but is a class below Sexton. Even if Hogg had scored 20 tries, put over every kick, passed like Quade Cooper and run like Barry John he still wouldn’t be number 10 in the Tests, due to his lack of experience.
Maitland’s looked good in defence, got through a power of work and is one of Gatland’s faves. Zebo’s looked keen. Bowe looked like he’d nailed on a shirt until he got hurt. Kearney always looks cool, but he’s still a bit tentative after his lay-off. Hogg’s been good cover and played pretty well. But…
11. North – No contest. Looks awesome.
15. Halfpenny – No contest. Looks awesome. Never misses a catch. Runs with the ball. Is a fantastic long kicker, and has a scary place-kicking record so far this tour
14. Cuthbert Huge, fast, and plays alongside the other two in the Wales line which helps. Underrated, possibly because he’s not as glamorous as Gorgeous George. Ignore him at your peril.
A few injuries about here, so there’s not many of them left. Tuilagi and Roberts would be contenders if they were fit. Remember that Farrell can cover here, too. Twelvetrees and Barritt didn’t look as sharp as they could versus the Brumbies.
12. John Davies – Better than you might think. Does the lot – passes, runs, powers though tackles. Can give away the odd turnover or penalty, though.
13. O’Driscoll – Would probably be selected if he was in a wheelchair. He must be carrying injuries. But he’s Brian O’Driscoll and if he is back to top fitness again, then who knows.
However, I reckon the real strength of this Lions squad is the bench, who will likely make an impact when they enter the fray, especially at scrum time.