Sport Rugby

Friday 18 October 2019

Gatland has left final pieces of the puzzle unsolved

Nobody should be surprised if Jonny Wilkinson eventually joins Lions party after curious squad decisions, says Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Hands up if you were surprised last Tuesday's announcement of the Lions squad to tour Australia next month stopped at 37 names instead of 38. And keep your hand up if you think Jonny Wilkinson will find himself Down Under not too long after his domestic commitments end with Toulon.

There was something distinctly odd in a 10-match tour picking just two outhalves – Jonny Sexton, who thankfully has reversed out of the injury cul de sac he turned into in February and is now motoring nicely, and Owen Farrell – with back-up coming from a fella who last played there in amateur land: Stuart Hogg.

The conspiracy theory is that Wilkinson was a late withdrawal, and that Warren Gatland opted to leave the door open until domestic duties were completed in France at which point he could say: "Here comes Jonny!"

Yes, in 2009 the Lions went with two frontline 10s in Stephen Jones and Ronan O'Gara, but James Hook was on hand to offer cover – mostly from the bench – giving either Jones or O'Gara a day off. He did this no fewer than seven times, two of which saw him start and once – the third Test when O'Gara was injured – as an unused replacement. Do the Lions want Stuart Hogg, whose last start at 10 was for Hawick, at outhalf when the referee starts the game? Or coming on at a crucial point when the contest needs to be either rescued or put to bed?

"I've no idea what their thought process is on that," says Rob Kearney on the issue of outhalf. "You can see both sides of the argument, where they want the two guys to get as much game time as they can, but then in saying that I don't think too many would be surprised if there was something else."

Kearney is hardly going to wade in to something that isn't his concern. Just as Greig Laidlaw's omission did a favour for Conor Murray, removing the Scot who could have played nine and 10, so too is Kearney happy with the way the cards have fallen for him.

The successful return of Sexton does him no harm in his Test battle at the back with Leigh Halfpenny. Moreover, as in the lead-up to South Africa four years ago, time missed during the season has done Kearney a good turn at the tail end when the squad is being picked.

"I did fall ill after that Harlequins game and then played the Dragons away, played seven minutes in the Heineken Cup final and then didn't play again until the Golden Lions game in Johannesburg, so I only played 90 minutes in three months – then I went over to that one really fresh as well, which probably in hindsight worked in my favour.

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"So certainly there are a lot of advantages. I know when I did take that break at the start of the year, getting that surgery, I knew that if things went really well and I did have a chance to go on the Lions tour at the end of the season, I could take a lot from being one of the fresher guys." And it's worked out nicely.

His form is solid rather than stellar, which suits him fine, and after a comprehensive win over the Ospreys on Friday night – burying opponents who have cost Leinster two league titles in the last three years – Kearney is on course to head off with two medals in his pocket.

At this point he is well positioned to make the Test side, a collection of men which looks like being put together on their capacity to bully. Kearney is hardly the King of Crash but his fundamentals are very sound, and Gatland will first and foremost be looking for that ahead of flair. As a former All Black, Gatland's default is that Aussies ultimately are opponents who can be beaten up if negotiations break down.

So before a ball is kicked he will be looking at a Test backline of Mike Phillips and Sexton – who at 94kgs and 6' 2" is ideal for the cause (he made 11 of 12 tackles on Friday night) – Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi, and a back three of Kearney, Tommy Bowe and George North. Not too many lightweights in that line-up.

The most intriguing aspect will be the combination up front. When Gatland said pre-selection that he wasn't hung up on the tour captain being the Test captain we inferred he might go for Brian O'Driscoll. Announcing Sam Warburton on Tuesday was either a ringing endorsement for the Cardiff flanker, or a parcel with wires sticking out of it.

In Gatland's head you'd say Toby Faletau is the only name written in ink in the back row.

So Justin Tipuric, who was the key figure in dismantling England in Cardiff, has as much chance as Warburton of being selected at seven. Does Gatland need a lineout forward at six? Yes. Step forward Tom Croft. Does he want a carrier to lift the troops? Enter Seán O'Brien to wreck his head.

With those hard calls in the back row you'd wonder why the coach didn't pursue further the goal of having intense competition for places further up the pack. Instead he wasted spots on Matt Stevens and Richie Gray. That means less pressure on a Test front five which picks itself: Cian Healy, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O'Connell. And guess who leads them out when Tipuric ousts Warburton?

Why Rob Kearney's pal, Paul O'Connell, of course. And by the time all that happens, expect Jonny Wilkinson to have joined the tour.

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