D-day for Warren Gatland is fast approaching with the Lions tour almost upon us. The Kiwi-born’s coaching staff has been selected, his full squad has been assembled and training has begun. Now all that is left to happen is the announcement of the XV to play against New Zealand in the first of three gruelling tests.
With so many world-class players in contention to start it has made the standard starting XV chat a very heated debate. The position that has perhaps thrown up the most contention is at fly-half, with three outstanding and very different talents ready and waiting to answer the call.
Wales’ Dan Bigger, Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell of England can all make a legitimate claim to start at 10, but who will get the nod?
It is likely that the player chosen at fly-half will be largely predicted on who plays at scrum-half. The halfback partnership will be one of the most important for the Lions; without excellent control and game management, the Lions can wave good bye to thinking about one test victory, let alone winning the series.
It would therefore be foolish to refuse to play a settled nine-ten combo if it is available. But which one should get the nod?
For Rhys Webb and Biggar it is really a tale of two contrasting players. Webb is exceptionally quick and can pick a gap like no other scrum-half in the touring party. Whether from open play or the base of a ruck, his nose for space is unrivalled and his darting attacking runs could gain the Lions vital yards in the tests to come.
“He’s obviously a bossy character”
— BBC 5 live Sport (@5liveSport) 15 April 2017
Ireland’s Conor Murray may not be as explosive as Webb but he is still a very agile and an able attacker that will look to expose space in the New Zealand defence, if there is any that is. While he may not be the biggest of players he is a solid defender when needed and where he really excels is in his partnership with Sexton.
Sexton, the Irish 10 was outstanding throughout the Six Nations and he controlled the game superbly in Ireland’s win over England. His place kicking, territory punting, eye for space and ability to foresee a situation before most others makes him a vital cog in Ireland’s attack and defence. The Irishman is also as powerful in his defending as he is with the ball, never shirking the responsibility of a big tackle or helping to clear out a ruck.
Biggar is more a player of perseverance and defensive ability. Where he lacks in pace and attacking intent he makes up for with tackling, accurate kicking and intelligence on and off the ball. The Ospreys’s fly-half ability under the high ball is bordering on legendary these days; with the Welshman regularly claiming the high ball challenge and winning his side valuable metres.
Both 10’s are quite similar in their style of play with power and intelligence dominating their game over any true space finding ability with ball in hand. While Bigger may be slightly better defensively Sexton seems more well rounded making the margins between the two very slim indeed.
For Farrell, it is likely to be an appearance off the bench at 10 or a berth at 12. The Saracen’s star is quite possibly the most talented of the three 10’s, but his lack of a partner at nine may see him fall out of favour.
If he is required though he can bring a superb all-round kicking game, an eye for space, a powerful defensive presence and an almost arrogant personality that makes the Sarries star such a born winner.
Just looking at skill then, can Gatland really omit the European player of the year?
With so little time to come to grips with the challenge at hand it will be massively beneficial for the heartbeat of the team to already be well acquainted with one another meaning an all Welsh or Irish halfback partnership is likely.
Of course, that is not to say it is a forgone conclusion. But, Murray and Sexton seem the current safe bet. Still, we may yet see a partnership of Webb and Farell or Murray and Bigger or, more surprisingly so, of Greig Laidlaw and Sexton!