While speaking to the Irish Independent, Warren Gatland spoke about the difficult task he faces in trying to narrow down the options at his disposal to somewhere in the region of 37 players. Included in that number will be at least 20 forwards, seven of which are likely to be back row forwards according to the British and Irish Lions coach.
Considering the number of quality back row players currently strutting their stuff in the Six Nations, this leaves Gatland facing a real selection dilemma. In addition, although Billy Vunipola might not feature at any stage during the Championship, it’s almost impossible to see the Saracens number eight being left out.
This then leaves a further six positions to be filled by a short list that includes; CJ Stander, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, James Haskell and possibly even Ian Henderson and Maro Itoje who can also cover the second row.
In such a tight race, versatility could become a massive advantage to the likes of Stander and O’Brien, who would, in turn, put their rivals under a serious amount of pressure. Indeed, if Gatland only brings seven back row forwards, it is hard to imagine the Lions coach selecting any more than two specialist number eights.
Therefore, the inclusion of Stander could see either Heaslip or Faletau miss out, as the South African is equally adept at playing either on the blind side or at number eight. Likewise, although Justin Tipuric is playing some of the best rugby of his career, Sean O’Brien can play across the back row and has already shown the ability to trouble the All Blacks last November.
This could see a situation whereby Wales’ current first choice openside could lose out to Warburton, who appears to be hitting form at just the right time. Furthermore, over the course of the last two weeks, Warburton has shown the ability to play on either side of the number eight.
Against the Italians, Warburton played more like a traditional blindside, carrying the ball more often than he would normally do. Conversely, during his side’s defeat at the hands of England, Warburton’s influence at the breakdown was very evident in both defence and attack.
Although he might not play like a traditional openside in the mould of either Warburton or Tipuric, James Haskell has had an incredible influence on proceedings when he was introduced from the bench against both France and Wales.
In both games, England were struggling for any go-forward ball and were being frustrated at the breakdown. However, with Haskell’s introduction came an increase in tempo and speed for England, who went on to overcome their opponents in the final quarter of both games.
Although he should have arguably been sin-binned in the Principality Stadium for not releasing while Wales upped the ante under the English posts last weekend, Haskell’s aggression filled the void left by the departing Moriarty and went a long way in turning the game in England’s favour.
The form of Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Alun Wyn Jones and the Gray brothers also creates complications when it comes to the possible inclusion of Maro Itoje in the back row. Although he might not have excelled for England in the number six jersey thus far, Gatland might want to include a third line out jumper in his starting XV.
In the autumn, Ireland targeted both New Zealand’s lineout and their maul defence with a great deal of success. This is something that won’t be lost on Gatland, who will also have noted the All Blacks’ long-standing vulnerability against lineout drives.
Indeed, in the midst of the 2015 Rugby Championship, Steve Hansen went so far as to demand law changes to make it easier for the defending side to repulse driving mauls, telling the New Zealand Herald,
“There’s never been anybody injured in a collapsed maul yet, but there’s thousands every week that get penalised. Just make that legal then it becomes half-pie a fair contest.”
This, therefore, leaves Gatland with a massive decision to make when it comes to selecting his back rows, and one which could have a massive impact upon the tactics the Lions will employ against New Zealand.
The Lions coach could select his back row based on their ability to carry the ball and dominate the contact area. Alternatively, Gatland could opt to compete with the All Blacks on the ground and bring two specialist opensides in Warburton and Tipuric. At the same time, there exists the potential to exploit one of the few weaknesses in the All Black armoury.
The identity of his seven back row forwards could therefore reveal Gatland’s tactical approach even before a ball has been kicked.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena