Sam Warburton

Sam Warburton

Today I’m going to look at the likely backrow and halves combinations for the Lions and Wallabies.

The starting point in this part is three players who I feel are absolute certainties to start the Brisbane test for the Lions, barring injuries in the lead up matches of course. They are the Welsh pair of Sam Warburton and Mike Phillips and Johnny Sexton (Ireland).

Unless Warburton’s form is poor in the lead up matches I can’t see the captain not starting in at least the first test, even if the form of others is better. In preparing this series of articles I’ve watched most of Wales matches since 2010 and Warburton’s form in 2013 was not as poor as you may have heard – having said that he wasn’t outstanding and he got injured in the Six Nations which gave Justin Tipuric (Wales) the chance to shine, which he took very well.

If there was any doubt in Warren Gatland’s mind that Warburton wasn’t an automatic starter in the first test of this Lions series I doubt he would have selected him as captain. Gatland has also been quoted since the squad was announced praising the way Warburton manages referees and that will be an important factor in what I expect will be tight test matches.

Mike Phillips

Mike Phillips

Warburton is a genuine open side flanker – he’s good at the breakdown and also offers some good running options in attack. He’s 1.88m tall and is a front line jumping option at the lineout and has been used by Wales in this role.

There has been discussion regarding the possibility of Warburton playing blindside flanker with Tipuric playing openside flanker as they did so successfully in the last match of this year’s Six Nations against England. That may happen later in matches if Tipuric is on the bench but I’m sure Gatland will want a bigger body starting at blindside flanker.

Ben Youngs

Ben Youngs

Phillips is a quality scrum half who can also play like another backrower which will be a real asset in tight matches. He also played in all three tests on the Lions 2009 tour so has an edge in the experience stakes over Ben Youngs (England) and Conor Murray (Ireland). The criticism you sometimes see regarding Phillips is that his delivery from the base of the ruck is slow and he is not that good at sniping. That may be the case from time to time but overall I don’t see that as the case. In particular, when he does choose to run he is a strong man who is hard to tackle. He also has a good box kick which I’m sure will get plenty of use. I expect Youngs will be the backup for the first test and when he comes on he will provide plenty of threats against tiring defenders.

Johnny Sexton

Johnny Sexton

The Lions have only chosen two fly halves, although there is speculation that Johnny Wilkinson (England) could join the touring party later once his French club commitments have concluded. In the meantime the choice is between Sexton and Owen Farrell (England). Farrell is a solid player but his inexperience means Sexton will start with Farrell on the bench.

Owen Farrell

Owen Farrell

Sexton is primarily a ball distributor and organiser – he is not a player that takes the ball to the line often, preferring to give the ball early to his outside supports and then get himself in position to run the next phase. He appears quite composed and is very good at kicking the ball in behind the opposition to play a territory game. He also is really good at putting up the high ball to challenge the opposition back three and is a good goal kicker. Farrell has shown this season that he is an exceptional goal kicker so the Wallabies will have to be careful with their discipline late in matches with Farrell on the field.

With Warburton starting at openside flanker the blindside flanker and number eight will come from five other backrowers in the Lions squad (ignoring Tipuric for these positions).

Jamie Heaslip

Jamie Heaslip

At number eight the choice will be between Toby Faletau (Wales) and Jamie Heaslip (Ireland). Faletau is the less experienced of the two having played 26 tests for Wales since 2011. Heaslip has played 57 tests for Ireland since 2006 and 3 for the Lions – he became the Irish captain this year.

Faletau plays a little wider in attack than Heaslip who stays tighter and has a higher work rate. Whilst Faletau is strong in contact I think Heaslip is the more physical of the two, particularly at the breakdown.

There may be a view that Faletau will be selected as part of the Welsh heart of the team but Heaslip’s experience, particularly on the 2009 Lions tour where he started all three tests at number eight will be invaluable and I expect him to get the nod.

Tom Croft

Tom Croft

The candidates for the blindside flanker position will be Tom Croft (England), Dan Lydiate (Wales) and Sean O’Brien (Ireland). O’Brien has the versatility to play all three backrow positions and is a proven performer but I think the choice will be narrowed to either Croft or Lydiate, primarily as they both have a bit of a height advantage over O’Brien, which is something you want in a number six.

Justin Tipuric

Justin Tipuric

Lydiate has not played a lot of rugby in the last twelve months due to injuries. In that same period Croft’s form was not great but he has run into form in the last couple of months. Croft is the more experienced of the two and that experience included playing in all three Lions tests in 2009. Both are front line jumping options at the lineout.

I think Croft offers more in attack and can be a real threat out a little wider and the combination Croft developed with Heaslip at number eight in the 2009 Lions tests will also mean that Croft gets the nod.

With Alun Wyn Jones on the bench covering lock and blindside flanker I think Gatland will have the flexibility to select Tipuric for the remaining forward bench spot so he can bring on a specialist openside flanker late in the game to counter the Wallabies duo of Liam Gill and Michael Hooper. O’Brien is the biggest competition for this bench spot.

I expect the following selections:

6. Tom Croft

7. Sam Warburton (captain)

8. Jamie Heaslip

9. Mike Phillips

10. Johnny Sexton

20. Justin Tipuric

21. Ben Youngs

22. Owen Farrell

Watch the video below for some examples of what I think we can expect from my predicted Lions choices in these positions, and then read how I think the Wallabies can counter these threats on page 2.

Pages: 1 2

  • Kevino

    Conor Murray had the best form of the scrum halfs late in the season, don’t be surprised if he out plays Phillips and get’s the test starting spot after the tour games. He is one of those players who just keeps getting better.

    • Helennsteve Stevenhelen

      Murray is 3rd of 3, but might beat Youngs to the bench. To get the starting place off Phillips he will need a gun.

  • Pedro

    If Deans is intent on having a non jumping lock (Timani), then surely he’s obliged to pick two jumpers in the back row. The obvious two being Mowen and Higginbotham at six and eight. Having BOTH Palu and Timani weakens our lineout too much in my opinion.

    • Patrick

      Having Timani weakens our entire game. Arguably he is as good as Douglas or Pyle in the scrums but he isn’t better and he is definitely less good everywhere else.

      • BOPSteamers

        Everyone hates Timani on this forum….He is better than both those guys scrumtime btw

  • Try_Ranosaurus Rex

    The more I think of it, the more I like the sound of a Hooper (Gill) / Higginbum/ Mowen backrow. However I Deans has shown he loves grade A Tongan Beef in the piggies, so I agree in the fact that we’ll likely see Palu at no.8.

    • Patrick

      That would be my pick too.

  • Jay

    Let me just say I’ve been to all rebels matches and watched O’Connor play and I can confidently say his tactical kicking is not even as good as Liam Gill’s left boot. He does not seem as if he really knows how to properly kick the ball and don’t even let me start on his drop kicks which are lucky to get any altitude. With Robbie seeing the same stuff I’m seeing does that mean we will need another kicking option at #12 (Lealiifano or Barnes) or is it going to come from #15 (Barnes) where we used last year and moved into first receiver every now and then

    • Piggy

      Woodward has been taking the restarts for the Rebels for a while now. I would expect to see Barnes as a second kicking option somewhere in the backline (12 or 15 if McCabe comes good) – apart from Lilo I can’t think of any other good kicking options in the 25 man squad – and I’m fairly certain Higgers won’t be playing in the backline…

  • Jimmy

    I’d probably play Palu but I’d leave Timani on the bench and have Pyle or Douglas in there and maybe MMM to cover the back row. Problem with startimg Timani and Palu is that if they both have a lazy day we are a good chance of not being able to cover them. Having said this, we do need one of them there and I think Palu has more of a claim than Timani.

    I’m sorry as I know this will upset all the Mowen fans but he really doesn’t have the impact you need from an 8. You need a Palu type who can grab the ball when the scrum has been demolished and make a couple of metres in hard defence. Mowen isn’t that guy.

  • Bob

    Another good article, but I think you’ve got the Lions back row wrong. Gatland said he was influenced by Wales’ comprehensive victory over England, and yet your starting forward pack only has 3 Welsh players. I reckon Faletau will start ahead of Heaslip for a start. Sexton does attack the line a bit as well, he’s no O’Gara in that regard.

    • Helennsteve Stevenhelen

      I think the back row selection here is not what Gatland will pick. He likes a defensively abrasive back row (Hence 1st choice for Wales[assuming form and fitness] would be Warbs, Lydiate, Faletau.) I think Croft/Tipuric will be seen as attacking options off the bench, so there would be a place on the bench for only 1 of them. Lydiate (given fitness and form) will resume his partnership with Warbs. As for No8 I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sean O’B start there. Both Lydiate and Warburton give the Lions back of the lineout options. In the set piece the Lions ought to be secure on their own ball will look to put pressure on the Assies ball. Coralling Genia off pressurised Aussie ball will be key to reducing Aussie ability to live off scraps, and Warburton Lydiate and O’Brien offer the best chance of limiting Genia’s effectiveness (assuming other elements of the game plan up front go ok). The three are the best arm wrestlers and tacklers, and none are slow off the mark, so there is no compromise in general back row play by setting out the targets in this way.

      • Niall Guing

        The lions will play with ferocious commitment at the breakdown and I am expecting a few injuries particularly in the backrowers
        That’s said I believe any of the ones mentioned will do .

  • Jack Mallick

    I’ve always loved Palu, and a large part of me still wants to see him start…but the best unit would be Mowen at 8 and Higgers at 6.

    Before this season I would have been dead set against Higgers being in the team, but he’s proved he’s got the bottle to be a standout in this series.

    Both players have good running games, good heart, are good options in the lineout, and good workrates. They would make a great pair the more I think about, especially with the little demons Gill and Hooper running amok beside them.

    Sadly, it’s at the stage where I ask myself “What would the All Blacks do?” They’d stick with two lean, sinewy, tough, tireless workers, who have proven themselves to be great team leaders. Mowen and Higgers are our men for this!

    Finally, Palu does have a history of terrorizing Northern teams, so let him tear in from the bench! Hammertime! I can smell Kearney’s soiled pants already

    • Helennsteve Stevenhelen

      “I can smell Kearney’s soiled pants already”
      Doubtful on all counts

  • nameface

    I do not believe I have ever seen such high quality analysis in my life, keep up the great work!

  • Fatflanker

    This is forensic stuff Scott – handcuff this man to the Dingo someone!! I agree Palu just isn’t hitting the high notes regularly these days although he is still a strong grafter and probably the Wallaby you’d least like ot be tackled by. One thing for sure, he certainly has had lots of practice grabbing the ball out of a back-pedaling scrum, (hopefully we won’t need to test that skill too much)!!

    • Mica

      Grafting is not a word I’d use to describe Palu! Unfortunately he is a Kefu lite when it comes to work rate.

      • Fatflanker

        Can’t agree with that although with so little game time I guess it is a moot point. In truth I’m predisposed to pick him on the back of his decision to stay in Oz and not take the big overseas bucks – a big call for someone so often injured. If he doesn’t impose himself in this series then no EOYT.

  • BOPSteamers

    Lets face it, the more islanders you put in the pack the better, we all know POmmies are scared of islanders. They bloody picked 2 of them themselves.

    • BOPSteamers

      Make that 3. Plus a maori!

  • redbull

    That is just downright depressing

  • Madflyhalf

    Warburton is not a pure openside flanker, which is instead Justin
    Tipuric; Warburton has played a lot of rugby in youth and U.20 as n.8, Justin Tipuric is instead a pure openside and the best they have there (without talking about experience at this level, of course).

    One of the most important thing of SW is that he can play 7, 8 and sometimes 6, in fact when his form started to fall in 2012, there have been a great talking about shifting him at the back of the scrum, making space for Justin Tipuric who was performing better in that time.

    Wales destroyed England in the last match of 2013 6N with

    8 Faletau
    7 Tipuric
    6 Warburton

    And that backrow was SCARY.

    Still this thing about Alun-Wyn Jones as a blindside backup…
    He’s NOT a viable option for the Lions, unless a huge amount of injuries there!

    Warburton and Heaslip are far much better than him! He won’t be on the bench because he can play at 6, he will be there because he’s fucking good at lock!
    That’s it.

    Lions will play with
    8 Heaslip (not in great form but as you said he has a huge workrate and an unreplaceable experience)
    7 Warburton capt.
    6 Lydiate

    And the bench will be made by form, Faletau (if Heaslip is not on top), SOB or Tipuric depending what they want to do at the breakdown.
    I think Tom Croft is just a cameo there… I’ve been really surprised of his inclusion, as he’s not solid enough to play 6 in the Premiership, his defence this year has been extremely poor, probably due to his injuries but that stands.

  • big ginger 8

    Serious underrating of Sexton here. He’s the Lions most important player. He’s fantastic vision and does attack the line regualary. He also after passing stays alive to the ball. If he touches the ball twice in a move their will in all likelihood be a try. Added to that he’s a very physical defender. Farrell is also not as good a kicker as the myth lets on and has a worse range than Sexton, though Halfpenny is likely to take the long ones at least if not the kicking duties full stop.

    Also feel SO’B is if not starting nailed on as number 20. He’s played across the backrow at test level and is an excellent player to bring on.

  • Stin

    Didn’t lydiate win 6 nations player of the year last year? Wouldn’t you have him somewhere in there?

  • Joe

    Sexton “appears” composed? Watch the 2011 Heineken Cup Final

    • Niall Guing

      Agreed, Living down here in Australia and there is no one that rates Sexton,
      I think he will be the player if the tournament behind a front foot pack

  • taffythebeermonster

    All of Gatland’s coaching history points towards his starting with Lydiate rather than Croft. Croft was actually out for 6 months longer, just returned a month earlier than Lydiate. Warburton feeds off Lydiate, and Warburton’s season went awry when Lydiate got injured last September. Expect Lydiate to start. Might even see O’Brien at 8 instead of Heaslip (despite the height issue). Warburton will be the rear lineout option.


Scott is one of our regular contributors from the old days of G&GR. He has experience coaching Premier Grade with two clubs in Brisbane.

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