Most Lions positions for first Test look nailed on but still places available
Zebo’s fine performance in his tour debut against the Waratahs ticked all the boxes
Simon Zebo during yesterday’s match against the ACT Brumbies at Canberra Stadium. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
About two-thirds of the Lions starting XV for the first Test looked nailed on, and that figure would be even higher if Tommy Bowe, George North and Jamie Roberts hadn’t been laid low in the last couple of weeks.
The likelihood remains that the Lions have lost three-quarters of their threequarter-line, as it were, but there and elsewhere a number of positions remained in the balance going into yesterday’s game against the Brumbies.
To begin with those threequarters, presuming the trio are ruled out, then given Manu Tuilagi hasn’t played or trained since the Reds game last Saturday week, Jonathan Davies and Brian O’Driscoll will be the last men standing in midfield.
All that would realistically remain on the wing would be Alex Cuthbert, Sean Maitland and Simon Zebo, which probably boils down to Cuthbert and one of the others, presuming that neither Leigh Halfpenny nor Rob Kearney are accommodated on the wing.
While both have served time there in the past, both have effectively become specialist fullbacks, and furthermore aside from becoming a damn good fullback, Halfpenny doesn’t really fit the profile of a North/Bowe/Cuthbert type winger favoured by Warren Gatland.
There would be greater merit in picking Kearney on the left wing, as not only is he big and physical, but would offer the Lions’ a left-footed option and would have the strength and aerial skills to counter the athleticism of the likely Wallabies’ right-winger, Israel Folau.
Of the two main contenders in the event of Bowe and North being ruled out, Zebo’s fine performance in his tour debut as a late call-up last Saturday against the Waratahs ticked all those aforementioned boxes and keeping Zebo back until the last 12 minutes yesterday could be interpreted as a good indicator for his chances.
If Roberts is ruled out, as will almost certainly be the case, then Gatland has no option but to play Jonathan Davies and Brian O’Driscoll, while the half-backs pick themselves.
The curious one here is that Ben Youngs was asked to play the first hour yesterday in Canberra, in which not for the first time he looked edgy behind a struggling pack, whereas Conor Murray was kept back until the 61st minute.
Murray has done well on this tour, and Robert Howley has been particularly impressed.
The general consensus is that last Saturday’s pack will start again against the Wallabies, but it would be no surprise if Warren Gatland didn’t want to display his hand fully a week in advance. Specifically, when given a choice between a good little ‘un and good big ‘un, Gatland tends to favour the latter, and Hibbard still fits the bill of a starting fullback with Youngs an impact replacement.
That would, one imagines, have been the thinking in advance of the tour, although then again Graham Rowntree appears to have a big say in selections, witness the initial inclusion of two English hookers and two English tight-heads, and now two English loose-heads.
Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O’Connell assuredly cemented their places in the starting XV last Saturday while the would-be debate over Sam Warburton’s selection will have rescinded after yesterday given Justin Tipuric had his quietest game of the tour.
As for the Wallabies, The Australian newspaper contacted Professor Joe Grotowski, Head of Mathematics at the University of Queensland two days ago to calculate the backline permutations available to Robbie Deans in his 31-man squad.
With only Will Genia at scrum-half and Adam Ashley-Cooper nailed on, and factoring in the versatility of James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale, Berrick Barnes and Folau, the Professor estimated there were 77.
The feeling is growing that Deans will not only perm O’Connor with Genia at half-back, but play Christian Leali’ifano at inside centre, Folau and Digby Ioane on the wings, with Barnes at fullback and Beale on the bench for impact. But the latter does depend on who you listen to. The Wallalbies are harder to call, but it would still be no surprise if, come tomorrow, Gatland pulls a rabbit out of the hat. That is his form.
Possible Lions team for first test: Leigh Halfpenny; Alex Cuthbert, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Davies, Simon Zebo; Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips; Mako Vunipola, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Tom Croft, Sam Warburton (capt), Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Tom Youngs, Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Sean Maitland.