Selecting a Lions’ Test 23 – the backs

Having dealt with the big lads in the pack in part 1, now it’s on to the glory boys. 17 of those on tour are backs. That needs to be whittled down to 9 (assuming a 6/2 split on the bench).

First pass

  • Sadly for Finn Russell an Achilles’ issue has put paid to any chance of featuring in the First Test.
  • Marcus Smith put in a superb performance against the Stormers but he’s likely to be an emergency only option for the Test series. Having seen what he can do though the other home nations’ fans will be praying Eddie Jones reverts to England’s old guard when everyone is available!
  • Louis Rees-Zammit was one of the stars of the Six Nations but finds himself in another of the Lions’ most congested areas. He doesn’t have the utility of the players who are equally comfortable at full back – and among the specialist wingers he is edged out on key stats like tries scored, carries, metres per carry and defenders beaten.

With 3 names down there are still 14 to choose from. Time to go position by position to eliminate the remaining 5 players required to get down to the final matchday squad.

Scrum half

Slots to fill – 2

Candidates – Gareth Davies; Conor Murray; Ali Price

A look at all the main publically available stats backs up what seems to be a reasonably commonly held view that Ali Price has had a very good tour and has probably shown up the best among the trio of scrum halves. This will have come as little surprise to Scotland fans who have seen the Glasgow 9 mature since taking over the nationals side’s shirt from Greig Laidlaw post-RWC.

In South Africa he has been playing the game at a good tempo, making the right decisions about when to release forwards or backs and maintaining a low error count. Gareth Davies has looked lively in his limited minutes but he’s had less chance to demonstrate his scrum half fundamentals are of the same standard as his rivals.

Price came into the tour with a question mark against his kicking game but he has really stepped up the quality of his work in this area. He’s also the only 9 who hasn’t been charged down at least once in the warm-up matches.

With all that said, Warren Gatland opted for Conor Murray as his captain in the absence of Alun Wyn Jones. The Irishman has seen and done it all before and been through Test fixtures at the very highest level for Ireland and the Lions. Even with Price’s excellent form it would be a surprise if he displaced Murray from the starting lineup.

9. Conor Murray
22. Ali Price

Stand off

Slots to fill – 2

Candidates – Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell

Injuries have really disrupted preparations on tour when it comes to the stand offs, culminating in the fairly extraordinary situation of the Lions’ taking to the field for their final warm-up match with none of the originally selected 10s in the matchday 23.

Opportunities have been scarce to change minds among those who will select the Test side. That means more of a reliance on past history and form through the 2020/21 season when deciding who will start.

This almost certainly means advantage Dan Biggar who has undergone a renaissance since moving to Northampton in 2018 and is the closest he has ever been to hitting the limits of the huge potential he showed as a teenage debutant for both Ospreys and Wales. Leading the Lions’ to a series victory from fly half would take his career to a new peak.

Owen Farrell had some shaky moments in the early stages of the South Africa ‘A’ game. His mental toughness carried him through and there was a marked improvement in the second half of that fixture. Warren Gatland knows and trusts Farrell and while he may not need him to start, his presence on the bench will provide some security as well as contributing to the flexibility required to manage a 6/2 split among the replacements.

10. Dan Biggar
23. Owen Farrell


Slots to fill – 2

Candidates – Bundee Aki; Elliot Daly; Chris Harris; Robbie Henshaw

The Lions have tried 7 different centre pairings on this tour. The Scottish Rugby Blog has already taken a look at the options here. The conclusion was that Robbie Henshaw was the only real stick on for a slot and Elliot Daly might just win the battle to partner the Irishman.

12. Robbie Henshaw
13. Elliot Daly

Back 3

Slots to fill – 3

Candidates – Josh Adams; Stuart Hogg; Duhan van der Merwe; Anthony Watson; Liam Williams

There are so many options to select from here. The bench split makes it even harder as there is no room to squeeze one more of these guys into the replacements.

Pre-tour the experienced trio of Watson, Williams and Hogg might have been seen as front runners. Josh Adams and Duhan van der Merwe have both continued their exceptional form into this tour though. Scotland’s van der Merwe is a newcomer to international rugby (although he has simply continued his stats-busting form from Edinburgh) whereas Adams has been Wales’ main strike weapon for some time now.

Adams’ flexibility to switch in and out at full back to some extent counts in his favour. He also has the edge over van der Merwe under the high ball and turning to cover in defence. Despite his extraordinary attacking prowess, Big Duhan is next to drop out of contention leaving 4 to fit into 3 jerseys. If Warren Gatland was to eschew the 6/2 bench split he could fit all 4 of these players into the matchday squad. That’s probably a luxury he can’t afford though given the war of attrition the forwards are likely to go through.

It comes down to Liam Williams and does he slot in ahead of any of the 3 other candidates? His scoring record is the least impressive and he wouldn’t grab a shirt based on his attacking play or pace. He is exceptional under the high ball though. Smaller things like discipline might count against him. At 15 he cannot offer the siege gun boot that Stuart Hogg can bring to the table and which could prove crucial in the kicking contest which will unfold against the Springboks.

Ultimately, with Anthony Watson able to combine the slipperiness and elusiveness of a specialist winger and the security of a full back in one package it could come down to a head to head between Wales’ teammates Williams and Adams. That being the case, Adams’ exceptional form over the last 2 years might just win the day.

11. Josh Adams
14. Anthony Watson
15. Stuart Hogg

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When he's not watching Glasgow, Scotland (and even Edinburgh) Kevin can usually be found with his head in a spreadsheet working out the most obscure Scottish rugby related stat he can put out on Twitter.
Follow Kevin on twitter @topofthemoonGW

8 comments on “Selecting a Lions’ Test 23 – the backs

  1. James on

    Good analysis based on the performances from the tour. Let’s hope Gatland takes a similar approach and does pick based on reputation from a few years ago like some other pundits!

  2. SlowWalk90 on

    2 Scottish starters and 2 Scottish subs seems seems pretty balanced. It could be more, but listening to the English based media is getting me worried that it may be less. I’ve seen 3 teams from these “experts”. Each of the teams had no Scots in the 15. One of them went to a 23 and one pundit had no Scots in that either!

    It’s unbelievable how they justify it. The Eggchasers podcast chose Williams over Hogg because he played against S.Africa A and did nothing wrong. Well, he played just 14 minutes and was in the play 4 times. Two of them (a high ball and an attack with ball in hand) ended up with him getting turned over. The other high ball he caught but the ref blew for offside as soon as he caught it, so he didn’t get the chance to give it back to them. The last one was when Farrell was charged down in the 22 and his poor positioning allowed S.A. to run it in unchallenged.

    If Hogg isn’t selected I’d be astonished. If he and Hamish were English there wouldn’t be any discussion whatsoever of their starting positions.

    • Alanyst on

      These so called experts are often nothing of the sort. Many do not put the work in to study the players or the game as it evolves.

      Others blatantly play to their perceived core audience and manipulate social media through ‘controversial’ selections (always in favour of their base, mind).

      In either case self advancement at minimum effort is the main goal.

      • FF on

        Hilariously, professionally unhinged Times journalist Stephen Jones has tweeted the article with the leaked team and claimed Williams misses out through injury, even though the article specifically states he is fit and passed RTP but Hogg preferred.

        I do hope this team is correct because it looks fun (definitely opting for attacking intent over defensive reliability) and like they’ll give it a proper lash. Also, that it seems to have seriously upset lots of Welsh and Irish fans, and Stephen Jones.

  3. Joe King on

    I would relish seeing DVDM at this level. Every time he gets ball in hand, he passes a man and breaks contact with the next one, he was brushing them aside like a bowling ball through ten pins. Yes he is a bit suspect under a high ball, but if he can take one or two with him every time, it is going to be a test to remember. I never realised just how good he is until this tour when he was supported by the best of the best. Josh Adams does not have the presence of Duhan. This guy was made for test rugby.

    • NewHavenBoy on

      Up until the point about Adams I was with you all the way. I think Adams is class. They are the two best wingers for me but if its 6-2 then maybe not.

  4. NewHavenBoy on

    The 6-2 bench split to me is just a recipe for calamity. South Africa aren’t even doing it this weekend.

    Its an HIA and Hamstring tweak from Courtney Lawes at fullback….. then again that would be awesome… ;-)

    5-3 means you can have an outside back on the bench.

    • FF on

      Yeah, but risky banking on no injuries in the backs really – or no one getting cramp in the last ten minutes.

      If Simmonds was on the bench he could cover centre handily, shame he’s been a bit underwhelming on tour.

      Anyone for Tadhg Beirne in the midfield? he’s just to skulking in wide channels anyway.

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