By Alan Dymock
IN THE aftermath of the 6 Nations and with time running out we are all confronted with the starkest of choices: who are our Lions?
An obvious point of conjecture, there were at least some standouts in recent weeks. So in the interest of making clear what Warren Gatland, Graham Rowntree, Rob Howley and Andy Farrell face before the squad announcement on April 30, Rugby World will sift through the runners and riders in each key position.
Of course, if you are looking for a dirty street fight for the ages, look on in horror and awe as the flankers claw for those precious few places in European cups and league footie. Perhaps the two most scrutinised players on the park during a Lions test, the flanks are slots that every home nation feels they have a shot of representation.
Looking at the highly sought after berths, there is a lot of debate around two men. Depending on who you talk to, one or both must start that first test. Both are Welsh, both have engines bigger that a drag-racing monster truck and both have an impressive and varied skill set.
Should Justin Tipuric or Sam Warburton start? Frankly, it is an irrelevant question, as both will tour this summer and will have opportunities make the Test team. Much like considerations on England captain Chris Robshaw, the brain-aching decision on where to make use of the versatile wing-forward falls solely with the head coach, but we can at least all be certain that if all three do not tour there will be not-so-quiet riots in stale, beer stained, clubrooms around the land.
What must be determined is what style of squad Gatland wants. It is fine watching a one-off European Cup game and saying someone who played well should be a bolter, but there is a tactical consideration that is more enduring than one performance in isolation.
If Gatland wants to muscle and hustle the Wallabies then, alongside the three mentioned above, he needs thankless slobber-knockers. He needs players happy to pull up their knees as they hang to a long chain, replacing the wrecking ball. He needs players who do not enjoy seeing the same shape of face from one week to the next.
With Stephen Ferris looking to be downed through injury, Kelly Brown, Peter O’Mahony, Ryan Jones and Dan Lydiate are the kind of players that could fall into this category. They have varying levels of destructive ability – Brown and Jones are constants with leadership qualities, while O’Mahony and Lydiate are the wrecking balls – but all of them to a man are selfless and show blatant disregard for personal safety.
However, if a mix is desired or Gatland wants players near the ruck to launch the counter attack rather than someone to link to a back to break, something Wales regularly do, then there are slicker options out there.
Tom Croft and Tom Wood are both players who may have purposely become illiterate; such is their lack of interest in the number on their backs. All they care about is running for a long time and bending round tackles and collision zones like gymnasts doing python impersonations.
Then there are the dart addicts; the flankers who just want the feeling of the wind in their hair and the sight of several defenders in front of them. Sean O’Brien is the biggest fan of bundling beyond tacklers in the British Isles, but there is also Steffon Armitage, the try-maven of Toulon and the Top 14. He’s off Lancaster’s radar, but is he on Gatland’s?
Want a truly left-field consideration? Groundhog and nuisance-in-general Ross Rennie has been back and playing well for Edinburgh of late…
When the list of players comes out the bracket of flankers will almost serve as a mission statement for the Lions. When we know the breakaways we will know what style of rugby the Lions want to play.