One man who knows a thing or two about Lions selection is Sir Ian McGeechan, the four-time head coach that led the victorious 1997 tour of South Africa as well as the 1993 series in New Zealand, along with coaching the midweek side under Sir Clive Woodward’s ill-fated 2005 tour of the same country.
When it comes to selection – and especially against the All Blacks – it’s widely thought that the back-row is the key area where domination can lead to a series success, but not according to McGeechan. He would much rare focus on the outside centre role, one he identifies as “critical” to any hopes of leaving the Land of the Long White Cloud with anything close to a victory.
“13 is critical in being able to show where the next Lions attack is coming from,” McGeechan told Lions sponsors Robert Walters. “The inside centre has to link with the back three. The other major attribute that a 13 has to have, he has to be a good defender. Captains, coaches like to see him as the captain of the defensive set-up because he reads the defensive line, he will be communicating with the players inside him as well as looking at threats outside.”
So what are Gatland’s options? Long gone are the days when Brian O’Driscoll was a shoe-in for the outside centre role, while the man who took his shirt for that famous third Test in the victorious 2013 tour of Australia, Jonathan Davies, isn’t in the best of form ahead of this year’s series.
England’s Jonathan Joseph would certainly be in with a strong shout, given the 18-match unbeaten run that the red rose embarked on since the 2015 Rugby World Cup. But that run ended in Dublin, with Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose starring as the Irish destroyed England’s Grand Slam dreams.
Ringrose’s performance that day, and his displays for Leinster this season, has seen him earmarked as the long-term successor to O’Driscoll for both Ireland and the Lions, but this tour might have come too soon for the 22-year-old. Henshaw presents a very interesting proposition, given he can offer the power route that Gatland likes should Owen Farrell, as expected, start in the No 12 jersey.
“The interesting selection decision that Warren Gatland will have to make is who he feels are the best players in that outside centre position and if those players are power players or decision-makers and steppers and out-and-out attackers,” McGeechan added.
Drawing on his own experiences, McGeechan unsurprisingly named O’Driscoll as one of the greatest 13s that he had the pleasure to work with, but he also made a point of noting one past England centre who left an impression on him.
“Two outstanding Lions centres for me in the 13 position were Jeremy Guscott who was a silky runner [who] could put players into space, and Brian O’Driscoll, who had a tremendous work-rate,” he revealed.