By Bea Asprey, Rugby World Writer
MANY MINUTES will be spent and even more pints will be sunk by rugby fans discussing the options for the Lions Test back row between now and 22 June. Competition for those three berths is fierce, and in particular, it’s hard to drive a wedge between Toby Faletau and Jamie Heaslip, who are battling it out for the coveted No 8 jersey.
Both popular members of the squad, the two are chalk and cheese in terms of temperament. Dragon Faletau is one of the quietest, most softly-spoken Lions, whereas Leinsterman Heaslip, in contrast, is vocal and opinionated. Heaslip has more Test caps under the hood – 57 for Ireland and three for the Lions – and has experience on his side. However, Faletau, at just 22, has started all of his 26 Test matches, including every game of Wales’ 2012 Grand Slam, showing the faith Warren Gatland and Rob Howley have in him. This was after making a name for himself at the 2011 World Cup, where he was part of a side that reached the semi-final. He’s also calmness personified, and you would assuage that he would deal with the pressure cauldron of a Lions Test debut comfortably.
Ball-carrying & defence
A fundamental part of any No 8’s game, Faletau has been known to destroy opposition teams with his pace and ability to break tacklers, and he’s also a nightmare for those attacking against him. A fine judge of the duo’s relative merits is former England No 8 Nick Easter who comments: “Faletau is a destructive ball-carrier and a dynamic runner, so adds an element of skill, whereas Heaslip is a better ball player.” This may be, but Heaslip dominated the stats in his performance against Western Force, finishing the game as the Lions’ top ball-carrier with 118 metres carried, nine defenders beaten and 13 out of 13 tackles completed.
Heaslip has captained his province, Leinster, on numerous occasions, and was named Ireland captain for this year’s Six Nations, famously ousting Brian O’Driscoll from his decade-long tenure. But while he was delighted with the accolade, it seemed to affect his performances on the pitch, during a dismal campaign which ended in Irish coach Declan Kidney being relieved of his duties. Faletau is no leader in the same mould, but his team-mates surely take inspiration from his team ethic and dirty work at close-quarters.
Faletau has been a model of consistency throughout the season, but Heaslip hit a run of form towards the end of the domestic season with Leinster, impressing in the Amlin Challenge Cup final and dotting down to clinch the RaboDirect Pro12 title. He’s also hit the ground running in Oz. Easter says: “Now the team is out there, you might see a vast improvement in one player where form is concerned. Some guys will fade after the long season, where others, say like Paul O’Connell and Dan Lydiate, who have hardly played, will be fresh.”
With a mere six games before the Test series starts, and with any players who featured in domestic finals rested for the first game of the tour, there hasn’t been much time for Gatland to test out different back-row partnerships. But Easter says: “Combinations will have a lot to do with selection. So far they’ve bulldozed the opposition so easily, there’s been no inkling of what’s going to work really well in a Test match.
“But Sam Warburton’s captain so he’ll be there, and he’s used to playing with Faletau. If I was picking the team, he’d be my choice.”