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British and Irish Lions 2017: Fullback Options

DUBLIN, IRELAND - FEBRUARY 10: Rob Kearney of Ireland throws himself on the loose ball metres from his tryline as Mike Brown of England closes in during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and England at Aviva Stadium on February 10, 2013 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images) Lions

The final article in the series analyses the options Warren Gatland has at full back for the British and Irish Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand.

It is anticipated that three full backs will be chosen for the initial Lions squad, as was the case in 2013 tour of Australia.

Ireland – Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo, Tiernan O’Halloran

Rob Kearney

The 30-year-old Leinsterman has toured twice with the British and Irish Lions in 2009 and 2013, earning three caps on top of his 72 for Ireland. Kearney failed to score a single point for Leinster in the 2015/16 season, missed the 2016 tour of South Africa through injury but remained Joe Schmidt’s first choice at 15 in the crunch matches against New Zealand and Australia in last year’s Autumn internationals.

Kearney failed to score a single point for Leinster in the 2015/16 season, missed the 2016 tour of South Africa through injury but remained Joe Schmidt’s first choice at 15 in the crunch matches against New Zealand and Australia in last year’s Autumn internationals.

A highly experienced full back, Kearney is arguably not in the best form of his career and is likely to see less international game time in the coming years as Schmidt aims to develop the experience and skill-sets of Zebo and O’Halloran. Kearney will still be a top contender for a place in Gatland’s initial squad come May.

rob-kearney

Simon Zebo

Munster’s all-time top try scorer has started at full back in the 10 matches he has played for the Irish province this season but was used as a winger in the two Autumn internationals against New Zealand. Zebo’s 8 tries in 28 matches for Ireland is not as impressive as his 50 in 112 matches for Munster but he is

Zebo’s eight tries in 28 matches for Ireland is not as impressive as his 50 in 112 matches for Munster but he is in great form for the Limerick-based side which is looking to win silverware in Europe and the Pro12.

A versatile option who can cover any position in the back three, Zebo is one of the most in-form players available to Gatland and is likely to be given the opportunities in the upcoming Six Nations to prove why he deserves a spot on this Lions tour.

European Rugby Champions Cup Round 1, Stade Yves-du-Manoir, Paris, France 7/1/2017 Racing 92 vs Munster MunsterÕs Simon Zebo after the match Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Tiernan O’Halloran

A constant threat in attack with a clean pair of heels, O’Halloran was an integral part of a championship winning Connacht side in 2015/16, scoring seven tries in 25 matches. With Connacht not looking the same threat they were last season, O’Halloran has managed three tries in five European ties and hasn’t yet registered a point in this season’s Pro12.

His form has earned him selection into Ireland’s initial squad for the 2017 Six Nations but he faces tough competition for a starting berth against the likes of Kearney and Zebo.

O’Halloran is arguably an outsider for this Lions tour, with his chances of selection resting on whether or not he gets game time for Ireland in the Six Nations and how well he performs when given opportunities in a green shirt.

Tiernan O'Halloran after scoring a try 17/9/2016

England – Mike Brown, Alex Goode

Mike Brown

Earned his first cap for England in a 58-10 loss to South Africa in 2007, Brown has gone on to win 55 caps for the Red Rose including starting 12 out of 13 matches in England’s undefeated 2016.

Seeing as Alex Goode is not a part of the current England squad, Brown has seemingly made the English 15 jersey his own and is expected to start a majority England’s games in the upcoming Six Nations, with Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly anticipated to cover his position if the need arises.

An out-and-out full back, Brown has a developed a well-rounded skill-set but does not leap out as being a specialist in one specific area. His reliable tackling and performance under high balls make him a safe option as the last line of defence and whilst he is always testing defences when he spots half-gaps, Brown does not have that extra pace or power to consistently break through the gain line.

He will have the opportunities on the international stage to produce high quality performances and further his case for Lions inclusion in what could be a second Six Nations title in a row for England.

Wales v England - RBS Six Nations

Alex Goode

Despite being axed from the English squad for the 2017 Six Nations, Goode is still regarded as one of England’s best and most experienced full backs.

His last appearance in an English shirt was at fullback in the 58-15 win over Fiji in November but it is unlikely that he will get the opportunity to represent the Red Rose before Gatland picks his initial squad for the Lions tour in May. With Saracens through to the EPCR quarter-finals and second in the Aviva Premiership, Goode will still get the opportunities to impress the Lions selectors in high-pressure matches before the end of the 2016/17 season.

LYON, FRANCE - MAY 14: (L-R) Alex Goode, Chris Wyles and Chris Ashton of Saracens celebrate after their vicotry during the European Rugby Champions Cup Final match between Racing 92 and Saracens at Stade de Lyon on May 14, 2016 in Lyon, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Wales – Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams

Leigh Halfpenny

Halfpenny initially started his rugby career as a winger, making his debut for Wales on the right wing in a narrow loss to South Africa back in 2008.

He was called up to represent the Lions in 2009 but played no part due to recurring injuries. In 2013 he was named player of the series, starting all three tests against the Australians and playing every minute, scoring 21 points alone in the final test and 49 points in all 3 tests (both Lions records).

Injuries forced him out of action for most of the 2015/16 season (including the 2015 World Cup), but he has started 15 games for Toulon this season, playing every minute in each and scoring 205 points. He started and played every minute for Wales in all four of their matches in the 2016 Autumn internationals, playing on the wing against Japan and scoring 49 points in total.

Halfpenny is seemingly still the first choice full back in the Welsh setup and his long professional relationship with Warren Gatland will probably aid his chances of inclusion into the initial Lions squad, but there have been questions raised over his form and what he would bring to the Lions despite his reliable kicking from the tee.

ASM Clermont Auvergne v RC Toulon - European Rugby Champions Cup Final

Liam Williams

The 25-year-old has played in 13 matches for Scarlets this season starting ten of these at full back and scoring three tries, whilst he started two out of three matches for Wales on the wings in the recent Autumn internationals.

Despite being in good form for Scarlets and Wales, questions have been raised regarding his attitude and temperament. A versatile back three option with a quick turn of pace, Williams provides attacking threat with ball in hand but his attitude, consistency of performance and physicality have been questioned in the past.

Moving to Saracens at the end of the 2016/17 season, Williams is expected to challenge for places in the current Welsh squad as a winger or fullback and could be a realistic option for Gatland’s initial squad.

ROME, ITALY - MARCH 21: Liam Williams of Wales celebrates scoring his try during the RBS 6 Nations match between Italy and Wales at Stadio Olimpico on March 21, 2015 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Scotland – Stuart Hogg

Stuart Hogg

The Glasgow Warrior has become the embodiment of Scottish rugby fans hope for a more promising future regarding the performances of Scottish club and international rugby.

A physical and experienced full back with blistering pace and a cannon for a boot, Hogg is widely acknowledged to be the favourite to don the number 15 jersey in the three tests against the All Blacks in June and July.

This is due to his impressive form at club and international levels, the consistency of his performances over the past 4 years and the continual development of his skill-set.

Hogg toured under Gatland with the Lions in 2013, playing five matches but not taking part in any of the tests against Australia. This Lions tour is anticipated to be one in which the Glasgow Warrior can showcase why he is regarded by some as the best fullback in world rugby whilst attempting to beat the All Blacks for the first time since 1971 and avenge the series whitewash of 2005.

Stuart Hoggg

Conclusions

Stuart Hogg is arguably the most in-form full back on this list and is almost a certainty to earn selection into Gatland’s initial squad. He is one of ten Scots tipped by Vern Cotter to stand a chance of Lions selection, and with Scotland looking to finish in the top three in the upcoming Six Nations and Glasgow eyeing silverware in the Pro12 and Champions Cup, Hogg will have plenty of opportunities to show why he is regarded so highly.

Another player on this list who is on fine form in the Pro12 is Simon Zebo. The Munsterman is a versatile option in the back three who can attack from anywhere on the field, has a quick turn of pace and an eye for the try line. Depending on where he plays in the Six Nations, Zebo could be included in the Lions as a winger or full back. With Munster and Ireland eyeing silverware in the coming months, Zebo will get plenty of opportunities to showcase his abilities and further his case for Lions selection.

The experience of Rob Kearney and the fact that he is still producing high quality performances for Leinster and Ireland highlight why he should not be ignored as a viable full back, but his age and subsequent lack of pace and agility are factors which the Lions selectors will presumably take into account. Kearney, Zebo and Alex Goode are the only players on this list who have the experience of beating the All Blacks.

With Jonny Sexton, Owen Farrell and Stuart Hogg all likely to earn selection for Gatland’s Lions, (as well as possibly Greig Laidlaw, Finn Russell and George Ford) Gatland may choose to select a player with a well-rounded skill-set that provides a more attacking threat along the ground as the third full back. This would reduce the need for Leigh Halfpenny’s goal kicking, meaning the Welshman could face omission from the initial Lions squad for the first time in his career.

If this is the case then Mike Brown, Tiernan O’Halloran, Liam Williams and possibly Elliot Daly could all stand realistic chances of earning inclusion into the initial Lions squad as the third fullback. Ultimately, it is the form of these players in the upcoming Six Nations as well as over the course of the rest of the season that will decide who Gatland chooses as his three fullbacks for the second Lions tour of New Zealand in rugby’s professional age.

Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena

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

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Author: The PA Team

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