After yesterday's 'BOD-shell' rumbled the rugby world, it was time to dig for positives from a Lions tour that hasn't exactly been a roaring success so far. Players have been drafted in out of sheer convenience while others who were originally selected, haven't been considered for a test place at all. Warren Gatland as was widely expected, went along with his tried and tested formula which has stifled the attacking flair that is undoubtedly contained within this Lions squad.
Nevertheless many of the younger players that have toured will return to their clubs and country's having matured and improved their games immensely. The standard of the midweek opposition in Australia may have flattered to deceive but playing alongside some of the most experienced players that the England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have to offer will only broaden their skills set ahead of the coming seasons.
Much has been made of the role that Rob Howley has played in developing the younger backs. It remains a huge pity that his superior hasn't allowed the more experienced ones to express themselves on the biggest stage. Gatland's selection this weekend again raises questions but what is certain is that Howley has left his (positive) mark.
Conor Murray - Munster & Ireland
The Munster scrum half has been one of the stand out young performers on tour and has grown as the weeks have passed. Having been previously criticised for taking an unnecessary step at the breakdown, Murray's tempo has quickened immeasurably in his six appearences for the Lions. He was unlucky to be overlooked for a starting place in last week's test. Ben Youngs was given the nod and unless you are part of a particular cheerleading media organisation, not many would have opted for the Englishman who has yet to produce his best form on tour.
Murray replaced Youngs with twenty five minutes remaining of last Saturday's game and although the Lions were on the receiving end of a deserved defeat, Murray showed great confidence in his cameo. His performance was enough to see him included in this weekend's crucial final test - which will again enhance his big game experience.
With Ronan O'Gara having called time on his Munster career, the void left at out half will be filled by Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan. Neither offer a whole lot of experience at the top level, with the former looking likely to be handed the reigns for the coming season. A lot of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Murray who at 24 is still relatively young himself. Murray is no stranger to taking control at half back as his performance alongside Paddy Jackson at Murrayfield suggested. Munster can be safe in the knowledge that their scrum half is returning from Australia in the prime of his career, ready to lead their new crop to success.
Owen Farrell - Saracens & England
'Faz' endured a rocky start to his Lions career against the Barbarians in Hong Kong but it came as little surprise to see him bounce back against Western Force. The Saracens out half has played 6 games in which he has racked up 51 points. Although he has yet to feature in a test, he has been named on the bench for all three tests, an experience which will no doubt stand to him in the coming seasons.
Farrell has almost become a victim of his own success, such has been the hype around a 21 year-old that so much is expected of. His performance against Ireland at a wet and miserable Aviva Stadium earlier this year was one far beyond his years. He has spoken of his admiration in both training and playing alongside Jonathan Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny. Unfortunately we have yet to see the best of Sexton's attacking flair you can be assured that behind closed doors, the apprentice has been learning plenty from the master. In Farrell's own words:
"Johnny is an outstanding player and I’m learning a lot off him. If it keeps going the same like this I will be extremely happy by the end of this tour."
In Halfpenny, Farrell has been working with arguably the best place kicker in world rugby right now. An imperious goal kicker in his own right, Farrell has proven he has what it takes at the top level. Saracens game plan doesn't allow for too much creativity in the back line (not unlike the Lions, ironically enough) but having spent six weeks alongside the ingenuity of Sexton, Mark McCall may be forced to rethink his strategy as Farrell certainly has what it takes to add that instinctive spark in the Sarries backs.
Stuart Hogg - Glasgow Warriors & Scotland
Plenty of Scottish fans have been angered at the apparent misuse of Hogg on the current tour. And few could argue with them. The versatile Scot has been shifted all over the back line without actually ever been given a real test at his preferred position - full back.
An electric and illusive runner with the ball in hand, many had high hopes for Hogg, who was selected as something of a 'wildcard'. There had been plenty of calls for Gatland to move Halfpenny to the wing with Hogg coming in to add more dynamism at full back but the coach has again opted to stick to his tried and tested personnel for the final test.
Hogg enjoyed an outstanding last season with an ever improving Glasgow side. Although it was against poor opposition, he has proven on tour that he has all the attributes to play at 10. It remains to be seem what is long term position will be but at full back, he offers an explosive option when coming into the line. Vern Cotter is set to take over the national side next year and having worked with some of Europe's most exciting backs at Clermont, Hogg is sure to benefit from Cotter's expansive playing style. A player who is only going to improve over the next few seasons, the 21 year-old has the rugby world at his feet.
What young backs have stood out for you on the current Lions tour? Do you agree that Murray has a huge role to play at Munster next season? Do you think Farrell can be the long term answer to for England at fly half? And was Hogg a victim of his own versatility on this tour? Get in touch and let me know what you think.
Cian Tracey is a freelance sports journalist currently writing for The Irish Independent, Examiner, The Sun and Balls.ie.
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