THE BLOG

Few Surprises in the Backs for the Lions

01/05/2013 13:24 BST | Updated 30/06/2013 10:12 BST
AP

So the Lions squad of 37 has been announced and as always it has proven to be divisive. Statements this year that form would be key and the Six Nations would decide inclusion seem to have been thrown out the window.

Understandably people are annoyed and upset but what did we expect? Could you really expect Warren Gatland to leave behind the likes of Tommy Bowe, Richie Gray and Dan Lydiate? It's not that he does not have other fantastic options open to him but quite simply he has to pick the best squad that he feels has the ability to defeat the Wallabies.

That's not to say that I agree with all his decisions. Let's start with the backs.

In the back three Gatland has opted for three fullbacks in Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg and Rob Kearney. Halfpenny and Hogg merit their places on form while Rob Kearney's reputation has played a big role in his selection.

By selecting three fullbacks and four wingers, it bring in the question of how much game time do you give to each of the fullbacks? This is just as key a question as wondering how much game time the stand-offs will get (which is why Gatland has only picked two).

It takes time for wingers and fullbacks to get to know each others' cues and positioning. There's only so much you can learn from training and watching match tapes. All of the possible back three combinations will need time to bed in.

You can't wait for too long to give each of the fullbacks time to get into form on such a short tour so does that mean that if one player has a bad game then his chances of a test spot are all but gone? Personally I couldn't see Gatland doing that to Halfpenny if he has a stinker early in the tour.

On the wing Maitland is the biggest surprise purely in terms of his lack of international experience but he is a proven performer in the South Hemisphere, is lightening fast, good defensively and very intelligent. North and Cuthbert were always going to get in as was Tommy Bowe who has shown nice touches since his return from injury.

Bowe also offers a nice creative touch to his game as someone who could easily slot in at 13 if the Lions need him to do so and would provide the contrast to a potentially power-packed midfield.

The centres...well no surprises there. Lots of power allied with Lions experience and there's no doubt that Manu Tuilagi frightens the opposition when he gets the ball. O'Driscoll was always on the plane and it would be great to hear 'Waltzing O'Driscoll' ringing out during the tour.

Jamie Roberts and BOD were fantastic as a centre pairing on the last tour but Roberts isn't in the same form of 2009 and O'Driscoll just isn't the same attacking threat with ball in hand.

Tuilagi is genuinely destructive going forward but with Jonathan Davies also in as another outside centre, he could well move to 12 or maybe Gatland will give Owen Farrell a run there. Which kind of defeats the purpose of only taking two fly halfs...

At fly half Jonathan Sexton has been the front runner for some time and barring injury he was always going on tour. On his day he is world-class but those days seem few and far between when he's not in the blue of Leinster.

Owen Farrell seemed a dead cert for the squad at the start of the Six Nations but as his attacking game has fallen away and with a couple of stuttering performances in big matches it seemed that maybe Dan Biggar or even Ian Madigan could sneak their way into the squad.

However he has just survived though Jonny Wilkinson making himself unavailable for the start of the tour has probably saved him along with the Lion's need for another internationally proven goal-kicker.

Personally I would have loved to have seen the mercurial talents of a James Hook find their way into the squad but they've gone for something more reliable in Farrell.

Scrum half probably threw up the biggest surprise of all with Conor Murray edging out Greig Laidlaw for the third and final spot. Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs were always going to go with Phillips a proven Lions test player and Youngs has a good record against the Australians.

However I think many felt that Laidlaw's ability to play ten and his goal kicking would see him get into the squad. The Scot is also a very intelligent player and would have offered a nine more in the mould of the French Le Petit General.

However Murray's powerful and combative performances in the Heineken Cup for Munster seems to have swayed Gatland as the Munsterman will also offer a ready-made back-up to Mike Phillips should the Welshman be taken out before the test series.

Gatland will want a scrum half to combat the pace and strength of Will Genia around the ruck and there's no doubt that Phillips is the player for the big occasions and he seemed to thrive in the cauldron that is a Lions test series.

I would go into my thoughts on the forwards but then we'd be here all day so you'll just have to wait for my next entry.