Can the Lions win their first series in over 15 years without an experienced head at number 10?
With no Johnny Wilkinson, Ronan O’Gara or Steven Jones in the squad, the British and Irish Lions will travel down under with a severe lack of experience in arguably the most important position. All three players have not featured regularly (or at all) for their countries in recent years, but the magnitude of a Lions test series could warrant some older heads in the squad, even if it’s just to support the younger guys.
Warren Gatland has picked the squad he was expected to pick; dominated by Welsh and English players – which is fair, as these two sides were a cut above the rest in the recent 6 Nations Championship. The squad boasts a big pack and some massive backs, but there is very little in the way of versatility. The monsters chosen to run the ball from the back are strong and belligerent, but also one dimensional, and a team like Australia – who is used to facing the brute power of South Africa and New Zealand on a regular basis – will not be intimidated by this.
Apart from the two fly halves chosen (John Sexton and Owen Farrell) not a single other player is capable of playing number ten at an international level. This prompts one to go searching for utility backs in the northern Hemisphere only to realise there are surprisingly few. The country best stocked when it comes to backline versatility is France, but they are, of course, not a part of the Lions set up. Whether it’s the conditions that call for a forward orientated game, or if it’s just a lack of enterprise is unclear, but what is clear is that the Lions cannot afford to lose one of their flyhalves on tour.
The talk (or rather rumours) in rugby circles is that Johnny Wilkinson, fresh from taking Toulon to European glory, is on call in case one of the two does get injured – but whether he will go back on his word of being retired is debatable. Another option would be to draft Wales utility back James Hook into the side.
Hook is not a legend of Welsh rugby, but he has been integral to some of their most important wins in the last decade. Hook offers you options at 10, 12, 13 and 15, which is a lot more than any of the other players picked. He can kick, run, pass and defends reasonably well, which made him a surprising omission from announced squad.
He may not be a permanent starter for Wales at the moment, but sometimes you need a funny shaped piece to complete an intricate puzzle – and without the complete puzzle the Lions will struggle to beat an Australian side whose Super Rugby players and teams are beginning to find some form.