One month out from the first Test between the British & Irish Lions and New Zealand, and one wouldn’t envy Warren Gatland and his fellow coaches as they attempt to name a starting 15 to run out at Eden Park.
The Lions were dealt the cruellest of blows on Sunday after England No. 8 Billy Vunipola — arguably the best player from the Home Nations — withdrew from the touring squad due to an ongoing shoulder injury.
Former Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll believes Gatland will know the bulk of his starting side — fitness permitting — to face the All Blacks on June 24, but has tipped New Zealand-born Jared Payne to make a surprise run at the No. 15 jersey.
“I see him as a possible Test 15,” O’Driscoll told ESPN.
“I think that is his best position and have done for a number of years. He’s a good enough footballer to be able to fit in at 13 comfortably and play on the wing if he wanted to because he reads the game brilliantly well.
“Teammates have more of an appreciation than the general public for the type of game that he has but his counter attacking [is impressive], he’s got some nice skills too and a good offload game.
“I think he is a good bet to be a starter in the Test team in one position or another, but I think probably 15 is his best chance.”
Brian O’Driscoll thinks Jared Payne could be the Lions Test 15 in New Zealand. Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Given the short preparation time available to the Lions, O’Driscoll believes pre-established combinations could be a big draw when it comes to final selection meetings.
He cited Saracens and England hooker Jamie George’s familiarity with locks Maro Itoje and George Kruis, as well as Conor Murray’s partnership with Johnny Sexton for Ireland, as being potentially crucial.
“The fact that they [Murray and Sexton] know one another’s games and they’ve been there and done it before on a previous Lions tour and won all points towards them being an easier combination to pick,” O’Driscoll said.
“But Warren Gatland is the only who knows where he’s planning on playing Owen Farrell. I think his best position is 10, but I think he’ll play him at 12 because you’ve got to find a place for Johnny Sexton if he is fit.”
Then there’s the No. 13 jersey — which O’Driscoll wore in eight Tests for the Lions across four tours.
Jonathan Joseph, Ben Te’o, Elliot Daly and Jonathan Davies are all options, but the 2005 tour captain would not look past countryman Robbie Henshaw.
“He’s played a lot of 13 in his early career. I know he is only 23 years old but he has five seasons under his belt already, came straight out of school and played a lot of 15 and 13 so he is well-versed there.
“His game is absolutely perfect for New Zealand — hard, physical, uncompromising, good skill-set, massive engine on him — so I think if he remains fit he will be the starting 13.”
Owen Farrell has joined the Lions squad in Kildare. Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
The make-up of the Lions Test back-three has 2001 & 2005 Lion Jason Robinson particularly intrigued.
The England international started all three Tests on the wing against Australia 16 years ago and was used as a fullback for the first two Tests on the last Lions tour of New Zealand.
“My fullback would be [Stuart] Hogg,” Robinson told ESPN during the HSBC London Sevens.
“There is a lot of competition because there’s Halfpenny, Watson can play fullback, so can Williams, but if we’re going to beat New Zealand we need players that are going to go out and attack, and if there’s one thing Stuart Hogg has been doing [it’s that].
“Halfpenny is good but he would be [in] more for kicking. His attacking game has slipped over the last couple of years.
“George North will get in. That’s because of the latter part of this season, obviously he has had problems with concussion and loss of form naturally and for a while he wasn’t in the reckoning but he’s come back and he’s played some good stuff and I think he’s going to be one winger.
“For me then [the other winger] it’s either [Anthony] Watson or [Liam] Williams. I like Anthony Watson, I think he gets better and better, he’s had a couple of injuries but I think he’s electric, he’s got good pace and he can certainly create and finish a try.
“Likewise Williams, very similar, not much to him but he’s very wiry and he wants to attack and take people on.
“But I think of all the positions when it comes to the wingers I don’t think anybody has really lit up the competition this year. It’s probably been one of the weaker areas in terms of form, they’re all obviously really good players but nobody has been scorching and scoring hat tricks and being untouchable.
“So I think [Tommy] Seymour and [Jack] Nowell will look and think ‘Hang on a minute, I’ve got a very good chance’ and every opportunity that they’ll get there and look to make the most of it.
“All of a sudden you can go from being fourth or fifth choice to starting the first Test, so it’s going to be interesting.”
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY