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British and Irish Lions 2017: Flyhalf Options

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

Johnny Sexton

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.

DUBLIN, IRELAND - FEBRUARY 14: Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrates victory after the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and France at Aviva Stadium on February 14, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. Ireland won the match 18-11. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Paddy Jackson

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.

CARDIFF, WALES - AUGUST 08: Paddy Jackson of Ireland catches the ball during the International match between Wales and Ireland at the Millennium Stadium on August 8, 2015 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

England – George Ford, Owen Farrell

George Ford

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.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 12: George Ford of England goes past a tackle by Pat Lambie of South Africa to score his team's third try during the Old Mutual Wealth Series match between England and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on November 12, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images,)

Owen Farrell

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.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - NOVEMBER 20: Owen Farrell of Saracens applauds the visiting supporters the European Champions Cup Pool 1 rugby game at Kingspan Stadium on November 20, 2015 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Wales – Dan Biggar, Sam Davies

Dan Biggar

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.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 17: Dan Biggar of Wales lines up a kick during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Quarter Final match between South Africa and Wales at Twickenham Stadium on October 17, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Sam Davies

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.

CARDIFF, WALES - NOVEMBER 03: Wales player Sam Davies in action during Wales training in the lead up to the game against Australia at the Vale Hotel on November 3, 2016 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Scotland – Finn Russell, Peter Horne

Finn Russell

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.

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - DECEMBER 26: Finn Russell of Glasgow kicks a conversion during the Guinness Pro 12 match between Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow Warriors at Murrayfield Stadium on December 26, 2016 in Edinburgh, United Kingdom. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Peter Horne

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.

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - MARCH 13: Peter Horne of Scotland hands off Yoann Maestri of France during the RBS Six Nations match between Scotland and France at Murrayfield Stadium on March 13, 2016 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Conclusions

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.

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The statistics used to write this article were gathered from the data presented by ItsRugby and ESPNScrum.

Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena

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