Former Lion Michael Owen says the back row will set the tone for the tourists’ game plan against the Wallabies this summer.
Owen, who toured with the Lions as a No8 in 2005 and captained the side against Argentina before departure for New Zealand, believes Warren Gatland’s selections at six, seven and eight will provide a clear indication of how he intends to tackle the Wallaby challenge.
The debate continues to rage as to whether the Lions will look to hammer the Aussies into submission by playing a tight game up front or whether they will opt for a more expansive approach, racing the hosts to the breakdown and then keeping the ball alive at every opportunity.
That question will be answered when Gatland and fellow coaches Rob Howley, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell announce their back-row contingent in next month’s squad selection according to Owen, with Gatland and co having already admitted that the blindside, openside and No8 positions have resulted in lengthy discussions to date.
“I think that ultimately selection will come down to how Warren Gatland wants his team to play,” Owen told the Rugby Paper.
“I think the back row will set the tone for the attacking intent so it depends how far he will go in that sense.”
Owen is tipping England’s Tom Wood to start in the No8 shirt for the first Test in Brisbane on June 22, with Ireland’s Sean O’Brien at six and Chris Robshaw, Sam Warburton or Justin Tipuric battling it out to wear seven.
Wood only moved to the back of the pack after injury to Ben Morgan early on in the Championship but he has consistently impressed for Stuart Lancaster’s side as they continue their quest for a first Grand Slam in a decade.
“I’m a big fan of Toby (Faletau) and the go-forward he brings to the team but, on current form, Tom Wood is leading the way at No8,” added Owen.
“He has been superb in the Six Nations so far, his all-round game is fantastic, he’s quick across the ground and he’s a good lineout option.
“He is very reliable in all aspects and on a Lions tour you need balance. Wood can give you that, he can play all across the back row.
“It’s a tough one for No7. I think that the captaincy obviously comes into it and Chris Robshaw is really putting his hand up at the moment.
“And then you have Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, who I believe can play together in the back row for Wales. Both would do an excellent job on the tour.
“They both tackle, they’re both great in the lineout and at the breakdown, maybe Justin is a bit more skilful – every time I watch the Ospreys he seems to get man of the match.
“The great thing about Warren, though, is he’ll keep the game plan simple. In 2005 we didn’t really know what we were all trying to do or how we were trying to play but that won’t be an issue with Warren.
“And it’s a huge benefit he went on the last tour. In terms of how the team gelled and played together, that tour looked to be one of the best and he’ll look to continue that this time.”