The ninth installment in the series takes a look at the options available to Warren Gatland and his coaching team at number ten for the British and Irish Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand.
One of the most pivotal positions on a rugby pitch, only two out and out fly-halves were chosen for the 2013 Lions tour of Australia – where Stuart Hogg often stepped in at 10 during midweek teams. It is probable that Gatland will pick three out-halves for this tour as the schedule is more demanding.
Ireland – Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson
The injury-plagued Leinsterman has 63 caps for Ireland and three for the British and Irish Lions, starting 58 and scoring 592 points in total since making his debut in a man of the match performance against Fiji in 2009.
He played the full 80 minutes in the historic win over the All Blacks in Chicago, but lasted only 18 against the same team two weeks later. On his return from injury, Sexton started and played 56 minute’s in Leinster’s recent drubbing of Zebre, as well as playing 41 minutes against Montpelier – where he was lucky not to suffer another injury after Francois Steyn’s high tackle.
At 31 years of age, this could be Sexton’s last chance to pull on a Lions shirt, and he will need to remain mostly injury free in the run up to the tournament in order to secure a place in the initial squad.
Sexton’s deputy in the Irish squad has matured in his performances on the pitch, becoming a more consistent goal kicker and all round rugby player. His decision-making has often been questioned, but with the recurring injuries to Sexton, Jackson is anticipated to see more first team exposure at international level in the coming season which should see his skill-set develop further.
Unless he starts all of Ireland’s matches in the upcoming Six Nations, he is anticipated to be an outsider for Lions selection. Ian Madigan has not been included in Irish squads since his move to France, and so is not included in this list.
England – George Ford, Owen Farrell
Started all of England’s matches in 2016 at fly-half (with Farrell starting every match at 12). The diminutive but highly talented Bath out-half has been on decent form for Bath this season, with his performances at international level also seeming to improve as he settles into the role.
It seems he is still not trusted within either the England setup to be the first choice goal kicker – a factor which could influence Gatland’s decision regarding his inclusion. His attacking flair and consistently adventurous style of play are positive attributes of his game, and he is expected to start at 10 for England in the upcoming Six Nations. This will allow him the opportunity to show that he is developing into a world class player and has the form and skills to do a job for Gatland’s Lions.
Eddie Jones and Stuart Lancaster both entrusted Farrell with the goal kicking duties for the national side, and Farrell has not disappointed – scoring 540 points through his 47 test caps for the Red Rose.
Dan Carter’s favorite to don the number 10 shirt against the All Blacks and touted by Jonny Wilkinson to beat his England points record of 1, 246, Farrell is only 25 years of age and is looking likely to have a long and successful England career ahead of him.
He could realistically go on the next three Lions tours and is almost certain to be named in Gatland’s initial squad – although whether that would be as a fly-half or inside centre remains to be seen.
Wales – Dan Biggar, Sam Davies
Gatland’s current first choice at fly-half put in a commanding performance against England in the 2015 World Cup, helping to knock the hosts out at the group stage. However, Wales did not enjoy the same success in 2016 – coming second behind England in the Six Nations, losing to England in a mid-year international, being whitewashed by the All Blacks (including a 40-7 loss to the Chiefs) but winning three out of four matches in the recent Autumn internationals (although some performances were questioned). Biggar started 12 of these 14 matches, and despite his kicking from the tee being reliable, the Osprey received mixed reviews of his performances over the course of last year. He will arguably need a strong Six nations were he helps the men in
Biggar started 12 of these 14 matches, and despite his kicking from the tee being reliable, the Osprey received mixed reviews of his performances over the course of last year. He will arguably need a strong Six Nations where he helps the men in red challenge for the title to be included in the Lions squad.
Despite only earning three caps for Wales (each as a substitute for Biggar in the 2016 Autumn internationals) Davies has enjoyed a breakthrough season at the Ospreys and is anticipated to have a long career with Wales ahead of him – especially after scoring the winning points in the recent 33-30 win over Japan. His natural rugby intuition, mature decision
His natural rugby intuition, mature decision-making and kicking game are respected attributes of his game, but the 23-year-old Osprey will first have to displace Biggar as Wales’ first choice fly-half if he is to earn a place in Gatland’s initial squad.
Scotland – Finn Russell, Peter Horne
Tipped to make a big money move away from Glasgow at the end of the season, Russell has been one of the Warriors and Scotland’s standout performers in what has been an exciting couple of season for Scottish rugby.
His down-to-earth attitude, consistent decision making and exciting running with ball in hand are aspects of his game which have earned him international praise. Depending on Scotland’s performances in the upcoming Six Nations, Russell could force his way into this Lions squad based solely on form.
Was named on the bench for all three of Scotland’s recent Autumn internationals and made a cameo in each. The Warriors’ utility back has earned 23 caps since his debut in 2013, with 14 of those coming as a substitute. Horne is likely to be an outsider for selection into Gatland’s Lions squad, with it being arguable that even if Russell suffers a serious injury before or during the 2017 Six Nations, Horne does not have the international experience or form to be a realistic contender for the Lions tour of New Zealand.
Sexton and Farrell were selected as the two fly-halves for the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia – Sexton has the most international experience whilst Farrell is arguably the more reliable goal kicker. These two players are on most pundits list of fly-halves Gatland will choose to take on the upcoming tour of New Zealand. However, Sexton’s run of injuries raises questions regarding his ability to remain injury free on what will be an intense tour, whereas Farrell has played most of his matches for England at inside
These two players are on most pundits list of fly-halves Gatland will choose to take on the upcoming tour of New Zealand. However, Sexton’s run of injuries raises questions regarding his ability to remain injury free on what will be an intense tour, whereas Farrell has played most of his matches for England at inside centre.
If Farrell is chosen as an inside centre by Gatland, then that could leave room for two more number tens to be selected. Finn Russell is arguably the most in form out-half compared to Ford and Biggar, whilst Ford’s long-term playing relationship inside of Farrell may yield dividends for the Lions. Biggar would need to be on top form for the upcoming Six Nations to become a front runner for Lions selection in Gatland’s mind.
It is anticipated that Sexton, Farrell and one other player will be chosen by Gatland and his coaching staff, with the most in form player to be taken as the third fly-half. The 2017 Six Nations will provide the perfect platform for each of the players on this list to prove that they deserve a place in the initial Lions squad, with players’ form for their clubs in the run-in to the end of the Aviva Premiership, Pro12 and European Champions Cup being anticipated to be somewhat influential on who Gatland decides is the best option at ten.
Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena