B&I LION WATCH: Who will partner Farrell?
TOUR SPOTLIGHT: With the Lions tour to South Africa just over 12 months away, Warren Gatland’s choices at No.10-No.12 are starting to surface. Ben Smith looks at the option!
On balance, the two best Lions-eligible flyhalves in this year’s Six Nations were George Ford and Adam Hastings, who showed poise and accuracy while having a hand in most of the big plays.
Jonathan Sexton showed in the first two games he is still a classy director of play but his Twickenham performance was nowhere near his desired standard.
A veteran of two Lions’ tours, the incumbent flyhalf will be 35-years-old when the British and Irish composite side arrives in South Africa.
Sexton’s age is definitely a risk, but the value of his experience should not rule out his chances of getting a seat on the plane.
He is a de-facto coach with invaluable amounts of knowledge to draw on, having absorbed Joe Schmidt’s teachings for years like a deep learning AI system. That is a powerful tool to have in the room, someone who can adapt quickly and solve problems.
The Lions No.10-No.12 system that saved the New Zealand tour was heavily directed by the duo of Sexton and Farrell according to Irish flank Sean O’Brien.
He claimed they could have won 3-0 with better coaching from their attack coach Rob Howley, who surely won’t be re-appointed next year after being dismissed from his post with Wales.
(Continue reading below …)
As a leader and tactician, Sexton is worth bringing even if he fills a bench role as a closer or just provides leadership within the squad, helping adapt and influence game planning as the series progresses.
Meanwhile, England’s George Ford rectified his World Cup demons somewhat in 2020, bouncing back during the Six Nations to offer some of his best work.
He was instrumental in picking apart Ireland and Wales, solidifying the No.10-No.12 partnership he holds with Owen Farrell in the England set-up. The appeal for the Lions is the two hold over a decade’s worth of chemistry to draw upon.
The problem for Ford is his past performances against the Springboks have been crippling, and their style of play seems to unsettle him.
In the World Cup final, he was haunted by Pieter-Steph Du Toit all night. His play suffered under the pressure the Springboks defence put him under and he was pulled after 53 minutes.
In Ford’s defence, many of the England side did not have their best night either, but it isn’t the only game against South Africa where things have unravelled for him.
On England’s tour of South Africa in 2018, their sole win of the three-match series came when Danny Cipriani was handed his first start in 10 years, after England blew early leads in the first two Tests with Ford starting.
In the first two losses, Ford was critically involved in key periods of play where England failed to execute and gave up momentum.
England’s last two wins over South Africa have been when Owen Farrell and Danny Cipriani have worn the 10 jersey, while they’re sitting on three losses from three attempts with George Ford in the driver’s seat.
Gatland can’t have that same Ford show up again against the team that seems to fracture his mettle consistently. That would be the black mark against Ford getting the starting Lions’ No.10 jersey.
Of the remaining Home Nations sides, Adam Hastings had a remarkable Six Nations showing that has not earned enough attention.
He brought as much of the upside that Finn Russell normally brings to the Scottish ranks with far less downside.
Hastings played mostly error-free rugby and picked apart sides with his ball-playing at the line and running game in tandem with Stuart Hogg.
The two worked well to construct key tries against France and Italy, while many opportunities were created against Ireland.
Defensively, Hastings was gritty and putting up loose forward numbers, making 16 of 18 tackles against Ireland then putting on another solid outing against England in the wet, making seven of eight.
If Gatland wants a calm, composed No.10 that can also fire a few shots, Hastings could be a dark horse contender.
With another year of physical development and another Six Nations campaign under the belt that shows more progression, he might be the clear number one option by the time the plane departs for South Africa.
There is no denying that the style of play that the Lions used last time in South Africa, the heavy gain line running spearheaded by Jamie Roberts on every first phase, might be the best option.
With that considered, the double-barrelled No.10-No.12 playmaking option that was rolled out in New Zealand may be shelved in favour of a more traditional midfielder to combat Damian De Allende.
Owen Farrell is the man that must play No.10 in this case. One of England’s biggest failings from the World Cup final was not getting the ball in Farrell’s hands enough in key attacking zones.
It just didn’t pan out in his favour playing outside George Ford and it was too late by the time he was moved one spot closer to the breakdown.
Farrell is one of the most physically tough No.10s in the game and relishes the contact battle, offering the most resolve to fortify the channels that De Allende will run at on every set piece play.
Manu Tuilagi can play inside centre, as he did throughout the 2019 Six Nations, allowing Garry Ringrose, Jonathan Davies or Henry Slade to play at outside centre.
Former England Under-20 midfielder Nick Tompkins also had an impressive Six Nations for Wales and could push into that midfield picture.
The two maverick gunslingers Danny Cipriani and Finn Russell are looking from the outside in at this stage, due to a lack of international game time, but cannot be completely ruled out.
Before his divorce from the Scotland set up Russell had proven that on his day, he is up there with the very best. His European season with Racing 92, with some of the best weapons in the world at his disposal, showed his manic ability to pull off the magical.
If the first Test goes pearshaped, being able to call on Russell for a do-or-die clash is a move that could throw the cat among the pigeons.
A solid Six Nations campaign next year from Welsh flyhalf Gareth Anscombe, who has had a horror run of injuries, could also propel him into the mix. Both Anscombe and Dan Biggar bring familiarity with Gatland that may provide the Kiwi coach peace of mind.
The one man who will be guaranteed is Owen Farrell, at either 10 or 12, but the big question remains is who is best suited to line up beside him.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass