|North in action against Combined Country|
The ability to break the gain line is vitally important in rugby, the equivalent in football would be retaining the ball stops your opponent from scoring. Staying in rallies in tennis makes your opponent work harder, you get the gist. Roberts, Tuilagi, O Driscoll, North, Cuthbert are all players who can smash through the gain line but only three of these are fit and North marginally. We all know Warren Gatland's plan for Australia to get good ball to smash through and offload etc. We understand that Roberts won't make saturday but will make next week. Tuilagi is in slightly better shape but has he played enough. Gatland's game plan has counted against one of the star performers on the tour Jonathan Davies who would be a certain starter had one of the greatest centres in the game not graced the stage one more time.
Before the tour, I went for a Healy, Hibbard and Jones split. Now when I look at the fact that Healy has gone home injured after the game with Western Force and Hibbard hasn't really lit the tour on fire despite being the front runner. This coming from a huge advocate of Hibbard's. Mako Vunipola has made the number one jersey his own. His destructive running with ball in hand especially considering his age is relentless. Add that to the fact that he gets through plenty of work you've got yourself a future star. His only weakness is his scrummaging but he can only get better with age.
Like I mentioned Hibbard has been in and out of games this tour. Sky reported on tuesday that the Osprey has fallen down the pecking order due to his influence on games and his work at the lineout. He needed a good 20 minutes against the Waratahs which he didn't really get. Tom Youngs hasn't lit the world on fire on tour but he has been consistent especially his lineout which Gatland knows his crucial the game on the weekend. He can also add out wide and in close contact since he is an ex centre. Adam Jones will always be the front runner he's the best number 3 in the world, despite only playing bit parts you can bet he was saved for the final. Dan Cole impressing but Jones irreplaceable.
1.Mako Vunipola 2. Tom Youngs 3. Adam Jones
One again pre-tour I went for the trusted AWJ and POC as locks because of their experience and sheer ability. Early on I felt like questionning myself due to the imperious form of Richie Gray who was pheunomenal early on but that disappeared towards the latter of the warm ups. Geoff Parling another who was impressive but only from the bench and will be a great impact player from the side. O Connell has been his usual self on tour, making carries, hitting rucks and earning the hard yards. In contrast Alun-Wyn Jones has been bringing his athletic side to the party. They both work well in tandem and will definitely have the pairing for the first test. I've been very impressed with AWJ's form since returning in the 6 Nations.
4)Paul O Connell 5) Alun-Wyn Jones
|Sam Warburton cementing his place against Reds|
The breakdown will be huge in the three tests. With Michael Hooper planning on hitting every ruck and stealing as much ball as possible, The Lions need someone to combat this and it looks like skipper Warburton is the man. Personally if it weren't for Justin Tipuric's performance against the Tahs on tuesday we would be seeing perhaps him and Warburton starting like they did in that stunning 30-3 win over England. The team were blown away in the breakdown, which essentially wasn't just Tipuric's fault. His fellow forwards let him down but it will still count against him. O Brien, Gray, Best, Grant and co were so far off the pace it was astonishing.
First half Tipuric made 3 turnovers on his own and in the second half they targeted him so kept him away from the action. Warburton was impressive against high calibre opposite such as the Queensland Reds on saturday and that gives Gatland the confidence to select him. Tipuric's stock has risen but surely the idea of putting them both together won't materialise on saturday. Toby Faletau has propelled himself into starting at 8 on the weekend for his sheer single handedly performance this week. He seemed like the only player giving his side good ball and hitting everything. Add that to the fact Heaslip hasn't really sparked then you can see the team being put together. The only dilemma Gatland will have is at 6 does he go for the athleticism and speed of Tom Croft for the wide exchanged but risk losing the breakdown or go with a genuine 6 like Dan Lydiate/Sean O Brien. The latter two will help win the breakdown but don't have the same attributes like Croft when the game is lose which is why I believe Croft will be on the bench saturday.
6) Dan Lydiate 7) Sam Warburton 8) Toby Faletau
This one was sown up before the tour and nothing has changed my mind. Mike Phillips started as the first choice and he's done nothing wrong to alter that. Also Ben Youngs has been inconsistent in his performances and Conor Murray hasn't got anywhere near. Will Genia is the best scrum half in the world and the Lions will need to take him out of the game which is why Phillips's physique and playing style will adhere to this. Youngs has been great sniffing around the rucks and hitting holes but he sometimes misses passes and also disappears when on the backfoot. At least Phillips will take the ball up as an extra forward.
On the other hand Jonny Sexton has nailed down his place purely for his distribution and the fact he has been composed at 10. Owen Farrell has shown his goal kicking but he won't create much at fly half which is not what you need against AUS. Sexton's partnership with O Driscoll is huge and underrated. He won't need to kick at goal because of Leigh Halfpenny's impeccable accuracy which means he can focus on his running game to attract Aussie runners. Farrell has shown in bits and pieces what he can bring but he's more of a player you want to finish a game not to win it in the first place. Sexton is the best fly half in the northern hemisphere and will start saturday.
9) Mike Phillips 10) Jonathan Sexton
If reports are true and Roberts is struggling for saturday and Tuilagi is a 50/50 then you can bet that they will risk Tuilagi purely because it's the game plan Gatland wants to implement. He wants someone to take it up the middle to punch the hole and use the subtlety of his outside centre to distribute wider and finish tries off. Despite the form of Davies who has probably been the best player on the tour unfortunately his position has cost him. This means Tuilagi will start at inside centre with O Driscoll at outside and Davies will make the bench. The only problem is Tuilagi's distribution is laboured and he is primarily used to run into tacklers. It's a shame for Jamie Roberts because his parnership with BOD is world class. Don't rule out even placing George North in the centre especially given his physique and impact.
12) Manu Tuilagi 13) Brian O Driscoll
Due to Tommy Bowe being ruled out this weekend and North struggling it's going to be touch and go up until the game with this one, If fit North will start on the wing because they need to match Australia out wide. Then it's up to Zebo, Wade and Cuthbert for the other side. Wade was poor when called in so he won't make the squad. Whereas Zebo has been smart in what he's brought to the team. I personally believe Cuthbert will start because Gatland likes big wingers in the form of the two Welsh powerhouses. Purely because they can come in and look for work and cause trouble wherever they go. Then the most nailed on position of the squad. Leigh Halfpenny who has not only shown on this tour his goal kicking is priceless but also his positioning and attacking influx. Stuart Hogg has shown attackingly how strong he is but defensively there are questions and he's still learning the game. Expect Halfpenny to start and to be crucial in winning the series, that's if they do win of course.
11) George North 15) Leigh Halfpenny 14) Alex Cuthbert
|Star Man - Halfpenny|
Thanks for reading