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GARETH THOMAS EXCLUSIVE: My Lions starting team and why Brian O’Driscoll is not included

by Aidan Elder | May 30, 2013

Gareth Thomas byline

He’s been there, done that and got the ice-skates. Former Wales and Lions captain Gareth Thomas has pretty much done it all. In an exclusive column for the Paddy Power Blog, he gives us his insight on life as Lion. Today he picks his starting team for the first Test.

There’s a long way to go and a lot of chances for players to put their hand up for selection through good performances in training or the tour matches, but if the first Test against Australia was tomorrow, this is my team.

It’s not easy and a lot of very good players miss out because they’ve ended up on the wrong side of some very marginal calls. One disagreement I know people will have (particularly the Irish) centres on Brian O’Driscoll. He was a leading contender for the captaincy, but he only makes my bench.

O’Driscoll is one of the greatest rugby players of all time and I tip my hat to the incredible career he has had. The moments of magic he has created are amazing, but as you get older, you lose that yard of pace and he’s starting to feel the effects of that. He’s still got plenty to offer, but it’s a natural process that you can’t avoid. I see Manu Tuilagi as being a better fit. It may not be the only disagreement you have with my team which looks like this…

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#15 Leigh Halfpenny

He’s a solid choice. He’s not as exciting a player as Kearney or possibly Hogg, but what he gives you is the ability to put over a penalty from way inside his own half. He has the capability of punishing teams in areas in which they think they can get away with it. They’ll play close to the line thinking they won’t give away points, but when you have Halfpenny in your team they will be punished. That means the opposition have to adopt a much cleaner mind-set in different parts of the field and that’s what makes him such an important weapon.

#14 Tommy Bowe

I’ve put Bowe in because he’s just got the habit of scoring tries. He’s an outstanding player with the knack of being in the right place at the right time. He’s another hard worker and although it must have been frustrating to miss a lot of the season with injury, he’ll be one of the fresher players in the Lions squad.

#13 Manu Tuilagi

It’s not a choice everyone will agree with, but I’ve gone with Tuilagi to complement Roberts. They’re both physical players, but Tuilagi gives you that flair where you’re never quite sure what he’s about to do. Alongside Roberts, it’s a talented centre partnership. They’ll attract defenders because they’re so strong and they’ve got the skill to offload and put North, Bowe and Halfpenny in space.

#12 Jamie Roberts

Jamie is really the only out and out 12 in the squad and the obvious candidate for that slot. He was excellent four years ago in South Africa and there’s no-one in the meantime who has genuinely threatened his place in the team.

#11 George North

North offers the physicality and looks for work all over the pitch. He’s almost like an extra back-rower with some of the positions he takes up. He’s a big, powerful player with his own attacking threat and those skills will be important against the Wallabies.

#10 Johnny Sexton

I’ve gone for Sexton over Farrell in large part due to his experience. Neither has Lions experience, but Johnny does have a lot more top level experience. He’s not as physical as Farrell, but he does have more flair and his tactical kicking out of hand is better.

#9 Mike Phillips

Phillips was an easy pick because of his physical presence and his pass. Around the edges of the scrum and the ruck, he’s a threat. He’s ferocious and you don’t always get that from a scrum half. Normally nines are relaxed and calculating and while Phillips does that, he’s got an aggression and ‘nastiness’ to his game that gives him the edge.

#8 Jamie Heaslip

He’s had a fantastic season. He’s the obvious choice at eight as far as I’m concerned. He works hard, he’s the outstanding candidate in the position. He’s dogged and he always sticks his head in. He’s almost like another second row, but he’s also got the speed.

#7 Sam Warburton

He’s the captain and he’s the right choice as captain. He’ll lead by example and you know you’ll get nothing other than total commitment. He’s got the brain you need. He knows when the ball is won, when the ball is lost – when to fight for the ball, when not to fight for the ball.

#6 Tom Croft

The battle for the six jersey is one of the hardest to call in the squad, but Croft’s ability to be a line-out option gives him the nod. He’s got the speed around the park too. He’ll work well with the other three and they’ve got a mixture of skills to cover all the things you need from your back row.

#5 Alan Wyn Jones

Wyn Jones will be the leader of the line-out, he’ll call where the ball is gonna go to. He’s good on the floor in the line-out – he beats people on the floor before he gets into the air. He’s just a really strong player.

#4 Richie Gray

Gray offers something different to Wyn Jones. He’s a big bloke, but he’s a natural athlete similar to Tom Croft in many ways. He’ll carry the ball in one arm, look to offload and do something a little bit different than your bog standard second row.

#3 Adam Jones

What’s going to happen in the Tests is that the props will be used for 50 or 60 minutes before the fresh props are brought on. I’ve gone for Adam because he went through the Six Nations and just demolished everyone he came up against. With the Australians’ weakness being their scrum, you need to have him in from the start to capitalise. He’ll secure good ball for the Lions and disrupt the Wallabies on theirs.

#2 Rory Best

If Dylan Hartley was still in there, I’d go for him because they’re similar players. He’s a late addition to the squad, but he jumps right to the top of the queue. With the excitement of suddenly being in the squad, I think he’s going to work a lot harder than the others because it’s come so unexpectedly.

#1 Gethin Jenkins

He’s in for similar reasons to Adam Jones and the strength of his scrummaging, but unlike Jones, he offers a lot more around the field. He’s known for making covering tackles or popping up in places you don’t expect.

Why I picked this team…

They’re my picks, but knowing what Warren Gatland likes in his teams, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was close to the team that lines out on June 22. He likes big, physical players around the pitch and a defensive structure that gets up and gets into people’s faces. His teams are physically imposing and able to execute his game plan. It’s a young team with a lot of experience in it

Obviously Sam Warburton is captain, but this squad has leaders scattered around the pitch. I’m not sure the experience of Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll as leaders is as significant as it would have been on previous tours. They’ll both be involved in the Tests and they’ll be more than bit part cameo appearances, but for the starting team I’ve picked, there’s a youth and excitement that they’re kind of lacking as the years catch up on them. They’ve got a huge store of knowledge and experience that will be priceless throughout the tour.

I’ve picked the team as units rather than the best individual in the position. The best individual might well be part of that unit, but I’ve attempted to put together groups that will work well together . When it came down to it, I wanted good combinations. Rather than Wyn Jones and O’Connell, I wanted two slightly different players alongside each other and I couldn’t have Paul in ahead of Alan in that position. I see Jones being a younger version of O’Connell and having them together makes the second row more unbalanced than it could be.

Some questioned its usefulness, but O'Driscoll took his man-hug training very seriously

Some questioned its usefulness, but O’Driscoll took his man-hug training very seriously

Likewise, BOD and Roberts worked great together four years ago, but O’Driscoll of 2013 is a different player to back then and now a bit too similar to Roberts. I see Tuilagi as a better fit and offering something else that the O’Driscoll/Roberts combination doesn’t.

To an extent, O’Driscoll is a victim of his own success. When you set the bar as high as he has, then people expect almost more than perfection. When he has a good game as opposed to an excellent game, people give him stick, just because he hasn’t been as excellent as he can be. He’s still got a big role to play for the Lions and when you sit back and think about the fact that this is his fourth tour and the quality available in Britain and Ireland at that position, still being there is an incredible achievement.

The Lions play their first tour match against the Barbarians on Saturday and Paddy Power has a great Money-Back Special on it. If the first try is scored by a forward, we will refund all losing try scorer bets on the match!

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