Time is running out for a number of players to force their way into Lions reckoning.
As interesting as it maybe, selecting a Lions squad so far in advance of the tour kicking off is pure folly. However, with limited international game time now available, players can certainly rule themselves out of the reckoning this early in the season.
Although a broad number of players had been in contention after the World Cup, the Six Nations, June tests and now the autumn internationals have slowly narrowed the options available to Warren Gatland.
It’s a bit like a reading a work of history by someone like R.F. Foster, Niall Ferguson or David Starkey. First they introduce a broad theme, before narrowing it down to single key element within their study.
In this week’s edition of The Oval Office Podast we review Ireland’s historic win over New Zealand and this weekend’s rugby action.
Gatland has already begun this process, announcing his intention to select a squad of between 38 and 40 players. This would be in marked contrast to the last squad to tour New Zealand in 2005, when Clive Woodward had enough players to split them into two separate groups.
Such a limited squad will mean a number of high profile players will miss out. Form and injury will of course impact on Gatland’s selection, as will a players ability to adapt to the game plan the Lions coach intends to employ.
For example, if Gatland keeps with the tactics that brought success over Australia in 2013, then big bruising ball carriers will be the order of the day, not smaller or more agile players.
In addition, if Ireland were to record a second successive victory over the All Blacks by utilising Conor Murray’s box kicking, Gatland would be tempted to select the scrum half alongside wingers who are strong in the air as opposed to being brilliant broken field runners.
For Gatland and the Lions, the XV with the best chance of beating New Zealand might not necessarily be the best XV available.
Whatever the tactical approach, players must perform to their optimum over the coming months, and not give Gatland a reason to leave them at home when the time comes.
Although Jamie Roberts was central to the way Wales and the Lions played under Gatland, the centre has suffered from indifferent form over the last year, culminating with his performance against Australia earlier this month.
Last weekend Rob Howley dropped the big centre in favour of Scott Williams, as Wales look to evolve from the Warrenball style with which they have become associated.
While Williams may not have carved open the Argentinian defence with regularity, he is a player worth persisting with, and is indicative of how the Welsh players are beginning to attack space rather than their opposite numbers.
By no means is Roberts’ international career over, but last weekend could prove to be a watershed moment.
It’s hard to imagine the Lions selecting any more then two specialist fullbacks, the first of whom being Stuart Hogg. This leaves the man who was key to the Lions success in 2013 fighting for his place in the squad.
Halfpenny has been unlucky with injury, but do the Lions need the fullback if Owen Farrell, Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar remain high percentage kickers.
Although it is wrong just to label Halfpenny as merely a goal kicking fullback, the other elements of his game have not been as prominent due to the strategies employed by both Toulon and Wales.
As a result, Liam Williams has taken on the mantle as Wales’ most exciting counter attacker, and is even regarded by some as their best fullback.
In addition, Williams can comfortably play on the wing, making Scarlets player are far more likely tourist. Mike Brown’s consistent performances also have him in contention, as does Rob Kearney’s recent return to form.
The ability of both Anthony Watson and Simon Zebo to cover at full back raise further questions as to Halfpenny’s inclusion.
When Eddie Jones first took over as England coach, he identified Manu Tuilagi as being one of their few world class players. However a series of injuries has meant that the Leicester Tigers centre has yet to feature under Jones.
Time is therefore running out for Tuilagi, who also faces the additional problem of breaking into the England team.
Although circumstances forced Jones to select Owen Farrell at inside centre, his combination with George Ford has been a revelation.
It is therefore unlikely that Jones would chose to break the pair up in favour of bringing in Tuilagi at inside centre, a position in which the Australian claimed he was best suited.
Tuilagi is therefore competing with Jonathan Joseph and Elliot Daly for a place at outside centre, but would his inclusion at 13 disrupt the balance England now have in their backline?
This time last year Peter O’ Mahony was regarded as being one of the best flankers in the northern hemisphere. However a cruciate ligament injury ruled the Munster flanker out of content until very recently.
In that time CJ Stander has become Ireland’s first choice blindside, and Jamie Heaslip further strengthen his hold of the number eight jersey.
As was expected of player returning from such an injury, his performance against Canada wasn’t up to his own high standards, leaving O’Mahony in a race against time to force his inclusion.
As if his task wasn’t hard enough, he faces the additional problem of having to compete with Sean O’Brien for a place on Ireland’s bench this autumn.
This leaves O’Mahony on the sidelines looking on, and could miss out entirely on Ireland’s match-day squad against the New Zealand this weekend.
After the victorious 2013 tour of Australia, George North was seen as one of the vest winger in the game. However a series of concussions and a dip in form has left the winger in a precarious position.
England’s Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell are among the leading candidates to start, while Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour looked to be hitting form at the right time.
The ability of Liam Williams and Simon Zebo to cover fullback bring the duo into the equation, while Marland Yarde, Semesa Rokoduguni and Jonny May could all come into the reckoning next summer.
North will not only have to find his form, but consistently demonstrate his attributes if he is to have any chance of retaining his place in the touring party.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
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