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In Focus Scrum-Half

Lions Australia Tour 2013

Having a variety of options played a big role in head coach Warren Gatland’s selection of his squad for the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand and that is borne out by the scrum-halves chosen.

"A half-back for me is a navigator that controls the game, where the nine is the heartbeat."

Having a variety of options played a big role in head coach Warren Gatland’s selection of his squad for the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand and that is borne out by the scrum-halves chosen.

The No.9 jersey is one of the most hotly-contested this year and the fact they come from three different nations is a testament to how outstanding they've all been in recent years.

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They also bring with them plenty of experience, with 159 international caps between them, and an attacking threat that is vital if the Lions are to outgun the world champion All Blacks this summer.

Ireland's Conor Murray and England's Ben Youngs have both beaten them with their respective countries in the past, while Wales' Rhys Webb has a sharpness around the fringes that could rival that of the All Blacks' Aaron Smith.

Click here for the official 41-man Lions squad

When asked what he looks for in a scrum-half, Gatland said: "Obviously the ability of our nines to be a running threat is going to be important.

"They're going to have to be accurate and their kicking game is going to have to be spot on. I think their communication with the forwards is going to be paramount as well.

"Looking at the half-backs, in terms of the nine and the tens, they're all going to all fight pretty hard in terms of who's going to be the lucky one to be selected in the Test series because there's potentially the ability for all of them to do that."

All three have had the benefit of working with Lions assistant coach Rob Howley in the past – in Webb's case from his times with Wales – while Murray and Youngs were both on the successful tour of Australia in 2013.

HOWLEY’S KNOWLEDGE

The fact that Howley, a former scrum-half himself, can pass on his own experience of touring with the Lions as a player in 1997 and 2001, when he played in the first two Tests, is an added bonus for them.

Howley said: "I think the [RBS 6 Nations] Championship showed that, in terms of the nines and tens, there's a lot of depth, there's a lot of talent.

"When you're going to New Zealand you need experience. A half-back for me is a navigator that controls the game, where the nine is the heartbeat.

"I think we're very fortunate within the northern hemisphere where players have been on other tours, which gives you that experience and the understanding at what it's like to be a British & Irish Lion.

"Hopefully, along with that quality, you get form and the players who played in the Championship have been, if not in top form them they've been on form and that gives us a good challenge in selection."

?LIONS EXPERIENCE

Looking at the players that have been selected, Murray has made Ireland's No.9 shirt his own ever since breaking into the side just before the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

He has gone on to form one of the best half-back partnerships in international rugby with Johnny Sexton, with an ability to drop the ball on a sixpence off the boot, as well as an eye for the try line.

Murray came off the bench in the Second and Third Tests against Australia in 2013 and has long been considered a near certainty to tour New Zealand, who he has scored against on three occasions.

Youngs also has a Lions cap to his name, after playing as a replacement in the First Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane, helping the tourists to a dramatic 23-21 victory.

The 27-year-old, whose brother Tom also toured in 2013, has been part of an England side that has swept aside almost all before it in the last 18 months, coming within one defeat to Ireland of winning back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slams.

His form during the Autumn Internationals went a long way towards him earning his place on the plane, which included man-of-the-match displays against South Africa and Australia.

WELSH ENERGY

Wales have a rich history when it comes to Lions scrum-halves (Gareth Edwards, Mike Phillips etc) and Webb will be looking to add his name to that list on what is his first tour.

Webb succeeded Phillips as the Welsh's first-choice behind the scrum and is a bundle of energy that often leaves opponents flat-footed when he sets off from the back of a ruck.

He suffered the heartbreak of missing the 2015 Rugby World Cup due to injury, but has fought off some keen competition for his shirt to become one of Wales' main attacking architects.

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