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In Focus: Wings

Lions Australia Tour 2013

The men wearing the No 11 and No 14 jerseys for The British & Irish Lions may change over time, but the mission statement always stays the same; score tries, and lots of them.

“It’s a very attritional position at the moment and we feel we have the ability to cover that."

The men wearing the No 11 and No 14 jerseys for The British & Irish Lions may change over time, but the mission statement always stays the same; score tries, and lots of them.

In this day and age it is more important than ever to have an all-round game – to be strong in the air, resolute in defence, and a flawless decision-maker – but crossing the whitewash remains the prize currency for any wide player in rugby.

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The Lions have more than had their fair share of the all-time greats in terms of speedsters out wide, with the likes of Ken Jones, Tony O’Reilly, Peter Jackson, JJ Williams, Gerald Davies and Jason Robinson all donning the famous red jersey through the years.

Of the 98 hat-trick scorers in Lions history, 59 were run in by wings, and if the Lions are to stretch the All Blacks in New Zealand this summer, these will be the men to do it.

Click here for the official 41-man Lions squad

Adaptability seems to have been the buzzword for Gatland and his team of coaches in terms of selecting his wide men for the 2017 Tour, with a number of wingers in the squad equally able to play full-back or centre and vice versa.

“I think if you look at the centres and the back three, a number of them have the ability to play in different positions,” he said.

“It’s a very attritional position at the moment and we feel we have the ability to cover that.

“When you’re going to New Zealand in the middle of the winter, you’ve got to be able to deal with the weather conditions as well, as they could be atrocious.

“We want to go over there and play some expansive rugby, but there will be times where that is dictated by the weather and it will have to be a little bit tighter.

“We feel like we’ve got some great footwork and some pace out wide; we’ve got the players that will be able to stretch the All Blacks and that is just what we’ve got to do.”
 
WING SPECIALISTS

Of the out-and-out wingers, Gatland has selected welsh pair George North and Liam Williams, English duo Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell, and Tommy Seymour is one of two Scots in the ranks.

Who can forget North’s contribution in Australia back in 2013; the 25-year-old (although it is hard to believe he is still that young) scored one of the great Lions tries in the first Test triumph in Brisbane, and then again crossed the whitewash in the series clinching win in Sydney.

When you need a performance, North tends to deliver, and if he can have anything like the effect he had four years ago then the Northampton Saints flyer will be a powerful weapon for the Lions.

Williams has been improving year-on-year for Wales and was a standout performer in New Zealand last year, as well as being exceptional under the high ball – much like Seymour.

Watson knows exactly where the try-line is, and has some of the best feet in the game, while Nowell’s brilliance in carrying and in defence could be perfect in wet conditions in the land of the long white cloud.
 

 
VERSATILE OPTIONS

But England centre Elliot Daly has been deployed out on the wing more than in his favoured position in midfield during his fledgling international career, while full-back duo Leigh Halfpenny and Stuart Hogg both have experience out wide, as does centre Jonathan Joseph.

Defence coach Andy Farrell shares Gatland’s belief that having options across the back three will be best for the squad.

He said: “It’s all about combinations now and who can plan in different positions. 

“That’s the beauty of a Lions Tour; you’ve got to be adaptable, you’ve got to be able to adjust in the heat of battle and be at your best.

“It’s not just about being good in attack, or about being good in defence. A player can have the x-factor in a certain area, but they can’t be average in another otherwise you get found out at this level.

“Making sure you have the all-round players in the squad is vital.”
 
RULING THE SKIES

Gatland also stressed that the aerial battle in New Zealand will be crucial to the Lions’ success, and getting the upper hand there is as much down to his back three as the kickers themselves.

“The way the game is played at the moment, the aerial battles are paramount,” he added.

“A lot of teams are now using tactical kicking as a weapon, so you’ve got to be good in the air both in attack and in defence because if you win that battle you can control possession and territory – it’s huge.

“We really have to encourage positive communication between the back three; not just talking for the sake of it, but so that players around you can hear your voice, understand you, know where you are, to build trust on your voice and know you are there to fulfil your role.

“Defensively sometimes you are left out on your own in that back three, so you’ve got to make some good and some pretty difficult decisions.

“So you need someone to be strong too, and having pace is a massive advantage as well.”

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