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Murray strives to keep number nine shirt as Biggar battles to lead from 10

Owen Farrell can’t be discounted as a key man in this Lions squad.

Updated Jun 18th 2021, 3:04 PM

HAVING ASSESSED THE Lions’ options in the front row and the back five of the scrum in recent days, we now turn our attention to the halfbacks with just eight days until their first game against Japan in Edinburgh.

Gatland’s squad selections in at scrum-half and out-half were fascinating in their own right, meaning his calls on the Test spots will be intriguing.

The format listed below is [age, national team Test caps, Lions Test caps]. 

Scrum-halves

Conor Murray [32, 89, 5]

Gareth Davies [30, 62, 0]

Ali Price [28, 42, 0]

conor-murray Murray is the Lions' incumbent at scrum-half. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Gatland will have been encouraged by Conor Murray’s good form this year ahead of the Lions tour, although it was a frustration for the Ireland scrum-half to miss three of his side’s Six Nations games.

Murray is a very experienced Lion, having made two Test appearances off the bench on the 2013 tour and then started all three in New Zealand in 2017. His kicking game remains among the best in the world, while he is also also a strong defender. Both of those aspects will be important against the Boks.

While Murray’s sniping threat around the ruck has arguably regressed in recent years, his pass selection remains excellent and his accuracy is usually reliable. Critics would suggest he is slow to get the ball away at times but the likes of Joe Schmidt, Gatland, and Andy Farrell continue to select him whenever possible.

Murray is favourite to start at scrum-half again but two players who are perhaps better known for bringing a high tempo to the game will be challenging aggressively.

Wales’ Gareth Davies is an intercept specialist in defence and has worked hard on his kicking game, as shown by six of his kicks in the Six Nations either being directly regained by Wales or dropped by the opposition. 

ali-price Ali Price during a Lions gym session. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Price is an exciting scrum-half, whose intelligent chip kick to Darcy Graham for a try against Wales in the Six Nations showed the kind of creativity he can bring to the mix. He also tackled effectively in the championship.

While Davies and Price have had real battles for their national team’s number nine shirts, Murray has been at the top of the game for a decade now.

It will be fascinating to see if he can keep a grip on his place as the main man. 

Out-halves

Dan Biggar [31, 92, 0]

Owen Farrell [29, 93, 4]

Finn Russell [28, 55, 0]

Welshman Dan Biggar brings compelling form onto this tour, having excelled during his side’s Six Nations success and continued to make an impression with Northampton recently.

Biggar was excellent on the last Lions tour but didn’t get a Test cap, something he will aim to rectify this time. A ferocious competitor with a consistent defensive appetite, the 31-year-old also has a point of difference with his supreme ability under the high ball. 

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dan-biggar Dan Biggar has been in excellent form. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

His kicking game is accurate, while his running and passing threats have improved even further in a very attacking-minded Saints team. Owen Farrell’s relative lack of form in the Six Nations may help Biggar’s cause, but then we know that form doesn’t count for everything when it comes to Test selection.

Gatland knows all about Farrell’s leadership, determination, and organisational qualities having worked with him on the last two Lions tours. It’s worth remembering that Farrell played the two most recent Lions Tests in the number 12 jersey, as Johnny Sexton came in at out-half against the All Blacks.

There is certainly a possibility of Farrell being used in midfield – where he plays for England – particularly given that Gatland has only selected three out-and-out centres. The 10-12 playmaking combination worked well for the Lions last time around, while attack coach Gregor Townsend has also had some success with the model with Scotland.

Farrell plays his rugby right on the edge of legality and his defensive discipline has slipped on a number of occasions in recent seasons. The Saracens man’s utter determination to leave a mark on his opponents is something that coaches value but Gatland will hope to see him harness it in a manner that does not leave his side exposed by missed tackles or penalty and/or card sanctions.

Farrell’s off-the-ball work and defensive energy are key attributes, while he has a refined kicking game and distribution skills that remain underrated. He is a world-class player with a huge amount of experience, so Gatland will be keen to see the best of him.

owen-farrell-celebrates-kicking-a-penalty-to-level-the-game Farrell is heading on his third Lions tour. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Finn Russell is the wildcard in the pack, having been selected ahead of the highly-experienced Sexton, among others. Russell’s vision and skills mean he can conjure off-the-cuff moments that other players could only dream of delivering. His creativity allows him to find ways through, over, or outside high linespeed defences – where the Boks are the most aggressive of all.

His approach does bring risk, however – as evidenced by the concession of 11 turnovers  during the Six Nations [compared to Biggar's six and Farrell's three] – but it’s worth underlining that any international out-half has to have a fair degree of tactical maturity and an ability to find kick space. Russell’s 47 kicks in play in the Six Nations [some of them attacking kicks, of course] were almost double Biggar’s 25.

All three of the Lions out-halves goal-kicked at just over 80% during the Six Nations, although Farrell possibly has the longest-term credit in the bank in this vital area of the game.

Biggar will fancy his chances of a Test start at out-half but Farrell cannot be discounted as a key figure in this Lions group, where it’s at 10 or 12.

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Murray Kinsella

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