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The back-row battle
By Tom Kelly
The halfway point of the 2013 Six Nations has now been and gone and whilst the progress of England and Scotland has pleased, surprised and intrigued all who have stood by, it has also made attempts to decipher a Lions squad all the more tricky.
With endless discussion and debate that only shows signs of augmenting, it is difficult to remember what general fans of rugby actually talk about when a Lions tour is not right around the corner. At the centre of much of the debate is the remarkable plethora of talent that is to be found in the back-row, where potential captains and proven top class performers are plentiful.
Only six months ago, the likes of Stephen Ferris, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Jamie Heaslip were nailed on tourists and potentially key leaders for Warren Gatland's party. However, the brutal nature of rugby has since disrupted this assumption quite drastically. Ferris' chances of being fit for the flight are now looking as close to zero as one can get, and if Lydiate does still make the cut for the touring party, it will have to be down to his previous accomplishments over any meaningful contributions in 2013 as he too battles with injury. Warburton and Heaslip meanwhile, have seen their stocks fall drastically over the opening three weekends of the Six Nations as form seems to have waved the captains of Wales and Ireland firmly goodbye.
Yet hope remains, the ever increasing admiration of England captain Chris Robshaw has surely now - providing he stays injury free - secured his place on the plane to Australia. The Scottish revival under Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan has also shortened the odds on Kelly Brown and Johnnie Beattie making the trip. Brown has always been a tremendous defensive unit, but has recently added a superb leadership quality built around his commitment and desire to improve, whilst Beattie's revival at Montpellier has reminded those who had forgotten, what a threat the man from Glasgow can be with ball in hand.
Throw in to the pot the likes of Sean O'Brien of Ireland, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau of Wales and Tom Wood and Ben Morgan from England, and the selection dilemmas around the three available positions become all the more visible. Wood's versatility and O'Brien's gain-line success rate make both men likely tourists, the other few places available are far more debateable.
Of course, a Lions tour would not be right without the odd wildcard selection and the remarkable form of Toulon's (and formerly England's) Steffon Armitage puts the former London Irish man firmly in the frame, particularly if Gatland wishes to go for a traditional ball-pinching seven.
There is little doubting that part of the reason so much debate surrounds the picking of loose forwards is a reaction to David Pocock, the possible Australian captain and turnover-titan of world rugby. Although his young protégé Michael Hooper may have stolen the limelight at times during the end-of-year internationals, the Brumbies' openside is one of the key men for the Lions squad to marshal come June.
As a reaction to Pocock's brilliance at the breakdown, there have been calls for an 'out and out seven' to combat his prowess. If Gatland is to go in this direction and look to secure a poacher at openside and fight fire with fire at the breakdown, it is unlikely that this will extinguish Pocock's threat.
It is important to remember that an openside's job is not to stop his opposite number, if the Lions are to succeed in stopping Pocock's disruptive nature, the fight will have to be won by the whole eight. Hooper's remarkable performance at Twickenham in November stemmed from an Australian front five which, despite all of the doubters (and there were many), more than held their own against the men in purple.
Despite England's struggles that day, it was their performance two weeks later when defeating the All Blacks which should demonstrate how to remove the Pocock threat. At the breakdown England were inspired, and as good a game as Robshaw had, it was not the England captain that kept opposite number and openside Richie McCaw as quiet as I have ever seen him, but the likes of Tom Youngs, Joe Launchbury and Wood who smashed every ruck with exceptional intensity.
It is therefore not a matter of trying to match the Wallaby threat. The Lions back-row will have remarkable depth regardless of who boards the plane. Therefore selection should and, knowing Gatland, will be based predominantly on form and temperament above all else. It will not be an easy decision to make.