Tuesday 21 November 2017

The Lions positional pecking order: Who starts and who makes the bench?

Courtney Lawes, Billy Vunipola, Conor Murray and Jared Payne Action
Courtney Lawes, Billy Vunipola, Conor Murray and Jared Payne Action

With the Lions squad having gathered for the first time, the Telegraph have ran the rule over each position to work out the current pecking order as they prepare for the challenge of facing the mighty All Blacks.

15 - Full back

In the Test team: Stuart Hogg

In the stands: Leigh Halfpenny

The complication at full-back is that any of Liam Williams, Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson can cover the position. That means whichever of Hogg or Halfpenny doesn't make the Test team is unlikely to claim a spot on the bench, either.

Halfpenny was the Lions' player of the tour in 2013 but he has struggled somewhat since then, in large part due to injury. Hogg, in contrast, has been the player of the tournament in the last two Six Nations and his ability in broken field puts him ahead at this stage.

14 - Right wing

In the Test team: Anthony Watson

In the stands: Tommy Seymour, Jack Nowell

The wings in the Lions squad are highly adaptable, but based on the idea that George North and Elliot Daly prefer the left these are the three men we think will contest the No14 shirt.

It is very close, but Watson's finishing prowess just gives him the edge. Nowell is a real live-wire though, and is the type of character that could come through on a Lions tour. It just seems on the surface that Watson's ability to make the most of any chance that comes his way will secure him a Test jersey.

13 - Outside centre

In the Test team: Jonathan Davies

On the bench: Ben Te'o

In the stands: Jonathan Joseph, Jared Payne

Perhaps the most open position of them all. Jonathan Davies is the man in possession from four years ago but that is likely to change during the course of the tour.

Jonathan Joseph will feel confident of staking his claim, although Gatland's admission he was only added to the squad at the last selection meeting suggests he is a long way down the pecking order.

Ben Te'o has 'impact sub' written all over him after fulfilling that role so well with England, while do not rule out Jared Payne making a sizeable impact on home turf. He is just the type of character who could thrive on a Lions tour.

12 - Inside centre

In the Test team: Owen Farrell

In the stands: Robbie Henshaw

Owen Farrell will surely be in the Test side and the main question is where he will play. It seems difficult to imagine Jonathan Sexton being shifted from the fly-half spot, which means Farrell is likely to line up at No.12, where he has played for England under Eddie Jones.

This would be tough on Henshaw, but if Farrell puts a compelling case forward for starting at 10 then the Irishman is man most likely to benefit.

18 March 2017; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by Owen Farrell of England during the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

11 - Left wing

In the Test team: George North

On the bench: Elliot Daly, Liam Williams

North's size and power marks him out as a man New Zealand will fear, and if he continues his recent fine run of form then he will surely be in the Test side.

Daly has enjoyed a superb year, though, and his versatility - he can cover wing, centre and full-back - marks him out as the ideal man to have on a Lions tour. Expect the Englishman to be in the matchday Test squad, even if he doesn't make the side.

Liam Williams, meanwhile, may well be pushing for a spot either on the wing or at full-back - making him another superb option for Gatland.

10 - Fly half

In the Team team: Jonathan Sexton

In the stands: Dan Biggar

Jonathan Sexton will surely start the first Test if fit. He has played well against the All Blacks before and his game management marks him out as the leading contender for the No.10 shirt.

Biggar, meanwhile, has struggled for form of late, and may even be behind Owen Farrell in the pecking order. One of the more straightforward decisions for the selectors.

9 - Scrum half

In the Test team: Conor Murray

On the bench: Rhys Webb

In the stands: Greig Laidlaw

Murray is the clear favourite to start, fitness permitting. He was outstanding against New Zealand in Chicago and is the stand-out scrum-half in the northern hemisphere, particularly when linking with Jonathan Sexton.

Of the other two, Rhys Webb has a clear advantage as the squad flies out, with Greig Laidlaw called up as a replacement for Ben Youngs after the England man's sad withdrawal. The Scot has it all to do to dislodge either of the men ahead of him.

Munster's Conor Murray. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

1 - Loosehead prop

In the Test team: Mako Vunipola

On the bench: Jack McGrath

In the stands: Joe Marler

One of the toughest positions to call, but Mako Vunipola looks to have the edge at this early stage. The England prop has the experience of having played in a Lions tour, and possesses superb all-round skills.

If there is a question it is about Vunipola's scrummaging ability, which could give Jack McGrath - probably the most powerful of the three contenders - and Joe Marler a chance. The running order on this one may well change.

2 - Hooker

In the Test team: Rory Best

On the bench: Jamie George

In the stands: Ken Owens

An area of huge debate, with current wisdom suggesting Best's experience will swing the position his way ahead of his two younger contenders.

Owens, though, was the best of the three during the Six Nations, while George is an exciting and dynamic option. The latter has never started a Test match before, however, so it would surely be too much to expect him to do so for the first time during a Lions tour.

A place on the bench may await for George, however, with the other two battling it out for the starting spot.

3 - Tighthead prop

In the Test team: Tadhg Furlong

On the bench: Kyle Sinckler

In the stands: Dan Cole

Furlong has enjoyed a fabulous year, and his display against the All Blacks in Chicago makes him the clear favourite to start.

If he fades or is injured then Cole will fancy his chances, but Sinckler looks a real option from the bench. He was described recently as 'a real bolter' by Graham Rowntree and he will be expected to show that late on against New Zealand.

4 and 5 - Locks

In the Test team: Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones

On the bench: Courtney Lawes

In the stands: George Kruis and Iain Henderson

It would be a surprise at this stage if Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones aren't the starting locks, although much can change before the first Test. Jones brings experience and leadership, Itoje youth and dynamism. They could be a potent pairing.

If that is the case then expect Courtney Lawes to be on the bench due in part to his ability to play in the back row if injuries bite.

George Kruis has a chance of making the Test line-up, though, particularly in combination with club and country colleague Itoje. His lineout ability makes the Saracen a real option.

At the back of the list is Henderson, but he proved against England he can produce when it matters.

6 - Blindside flanker

In the Test team: CJ Stander

In the stands: Peter O'Mahoney

The make-up of the back row is one of the most difficult issues Gatland has to solve. If you consider Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Sean O'Brien to be competing for the No7 shirt - and that Taulupe Faletau will not become an option at 6 - then it becomes a straight fight between the two Irishmen.

CJ Stander edges ahead having for the consistency of his performances, although a recent injury has limited his destructiveness recently.

Peter O'Mahoney, on the other hand, was immense against England. If he keeps that level of performance up he will be in the Test team.

Munster's CJ Stander. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

7 - Openside flanker

In the Test team: Sam Warburton

In the stands: Justin Tipuric, Sean O'Brien

As captain it is highly likely that Sam Warburton will be in the starting line-up for the first Test. In that case it is hard to see either of Tipuric or O'Brien forcing their way past him, although they may be able to find their way into the team at No6.

One of the more straightforward decisions for the coaching staff.

8 - No.8

In the Test team: Billy Vunipola

On the bench: Taulupe Faletau

In the stands: Ross Moriarty

It is very hard to see this coming down to anything other than a battle between Vunipola and Faletau. The cousins will go toe-to-toe but Billy is the likely winner, with Faletau on the bench.

That leaves Ross Moriarty making up the numbers as the squad prepares to depart for New Zealand.


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