Farrell had at best an indifferent Six Nations this year, whether at 10 or 12, and I would guess that a lot of people, especially perhaps here in Scotland, think Gatland shouldn’t pick him this time.
I would also guess that most Scots hope to see Finn Russell not only in the squad, but there as the Test match choice at 10. There’s good reason for this: the belief that, if South Africa are to be beaten at home, there will be a need for imagination and flair, the ability to do the unexpected, at fly-half. That’s certainly my opinion, and Russell is the best attacking fly-half in the Lions countries.
But here’s the rub. There has never been a successful Lions team that didn’t have a top class, utterly reliable goal-kicker. In South Africa in 1997 Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer had a problem. Gregor Townsend was the best fly-half they had, but wasn’t a regular goal-kicker. Neil Jenkins was then the best goal-kicker in the world, but not in Townsend’s class as an attacking fly-half. So McGeechan took the risk of playing Jenkins out of position at full-back because he needed to have him as his kicker. It worked, and the Lions won the series.
Now Gatland has three likely fly-halves: Finn Russell, Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar. Sexton and Biggar are excellent goal-kickers, both more reliable than Finn. So, if he is to play Finn, what must he do ? The answer is obvious. He must have Owen Farrell at 12. Farrell is at least as good a goal-kicker as either Sexton or Biggar, certainly better than Finn. So if you want to see Finn as the Lions Test match 10 you are going to have to set aside any dislike you have for Farrell and accept that he will be the best, indeed necessary, choice at 12. In short, it seems to me a case of “No Farrell, no Finn”.
Selection is the most important part of a coach’s duty, also the most difficult as a player’s strength have to be weighed against his weaknesses, and the needs of achieving a balance have to be judged. Which, in the context of this Lions series, brings one to the question of Stuart Hogg. Everyone – or, I suppose, almost everyone – recognises that he is a brilliant attacking player, a dazzling runner with also a mighty boot that frequently transforms the course of a game. But everyone – or again- almost everyone – knows that he has defensive weaknesses. He is not a secure tackler and he is not as safe under the high ball as are Liam Williams and Hugh Kennan, his two rivals for the No 15 jersey. If Fabien Galthie was invited to select a European XV, I suspect he would without hesitation name Hogg at 15. He can do things that no other full-back today is capable of. But Gatland has almost always been a conservative selector, averse to risk-taking.
In an interesting article in the Times this week, Stuart Barnes who, as a lover of adventurous rugby, has always been a warm admirer of Hogg, compared him, as others have, to Andy Irvine and recalled that in South Africa in 1974, the Lions had preferred the impregnable JPR Williams at full-back and played Irvine on the right wing. (And indeed Scotland at least once had Irvine at 14 with Bruce Hay at 15.) Given that South Africa kick a lot, one can understand that Gatland may have doubts about the wisdom of picking Hogg at full-back. On the other hand, they don’t always kick well, and nobody is more dangerous than Hogg if given the opportunity to counter-attack that an ill-judged or inaccurate kick offers.
Actually, the comparison with the 1974 Lions isn’t compelling, for JPR, Irvine’s rival then, was a very great player whereas Hogg’s rivals now are no more than very good ones. Hogg does things that no other northern hemisphere full-back is capable of and he inspires those around him to play better too. In any case there should always be style and swagger in a Lions Test team, and nobody rivals Hogg for these qualities. It would be a timid coach didn’t pick him as the Lions Test 15.
I would go further actually and suggest that he would be the best captain for the Lions. Others favour Alun Wyn Jones or Maro Itoje, but the former is not sure of his Test place and Itoje has not had the chance to prove himself as a captain. Hogg has, and Scotland’s revival since Gregor Townsend made him captain has owed much to his inspiring and intelligent leadership.