Just 24 hours until we find out who Warren Gatland has selected for the British & Irish Lions to take on South Africa this summer.
Yesterday we looked at the big decisions in the pack when it comes to selecting a 36-man squad, now we turn our attentions to the backs.
As we saw at the last World Cup, the Lions backs will have to be on their game, with the Springboks able to call on game-changers like Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi out wide, not to mention the power of Damian de Allende in the centres.
South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber will also have been pleased to see Handre Pollard make his long-awaited return from injury last Saturday, so whoever is lining up for the Lions, they will face a formidable challenge.
Breaking down the Lions squad selection debate: The Forwards
In previous tours, Gatland has generally gone for a slightly younger age profile in the backs than the forwards. Four years ago the difference was minimal (26.9 average age for the forwards, 26.7 for the backs), but in 2013 (forwards 26.9, backs 25) and when he was an assistant in 2009 (forwards 29.5, backs 26.4), it was more significant.
Will that be the same again this time around? The emergence of 20-year-old Louis Rees-Zammit should certainly help if he is included.
In terms of the breakdown of the squad, after selecting 20 forwards yesterday, that leaves 16 spots for the backs.
Whether it is a Lions Tour or a World Cup squad, three scrum-halves are a must, while the fly-half debate could depend on whether Owen Farrell is seen as a ten or a centre.
That idea of versatility will be crucial in the context of a reduced squad. Remember in 2009 that Tommy Bowe started the third Test in the centres, a position he never started for Ireland.
And four years later Stuart Hogg was given the nod at fly-half in a Tour match, a feat he repeated in this year’s Guinness Six Nations for the first time in a Scotland jersey in the win over Italy.
With that in mind, here is a look at some of the key debates:
Possibly the hardest spot to pick with no player seemingly nailed on to tour. We know that Ben Youngs will not be part of the squad, after withdrawing from consideration to spend time with his wife with the pair expecting their third child.
That still leaves a whole host of contenders, starting with Conor Murray, a tourist in 2013 and 2017. Murray started all three Tests in New Zealand, having come off the bench in the second and third Tests in Australia.
But in the Guinness Six Nations, injury restricted him to one start in the first four rounds. In Round 5, however, against England, he was back to his very best and pushed himself right back into contention.
Youngs was the only home nations scrum-half to start every game, so that leaves the rest hoping they impressed in limited game time.
Kieran Hardy did what he could for Wales, but injury cut short his campaign, while Tomos Williams went off at half-time in the first match and came off the bench in the last, playing none in between.
In terms of experience and form, therefore, it may be that Gareth Davies has the strongest case of the Wales scrum-halves.
For Scotland, Ali Price had some standout moments, particularly his perfect kick pass for Darcy Graham against Wales. It should certainly give him a chance.
Considering the stop-start nature of the scrum-half selection in the Guinness Six Nations, this could be the position where Gatland looks further afield, with England pair Danny Care and Ben Spencer both reportedly on the long list of contenders.
The former has won 84 caps for England and was part of the Grand Slam-winning side in 2016, while he has been in excellent form for Harlequins.
Care’s half-back colleague Marcus Smith has been a surprise name in media reports in recent weeks, but his inclusion would be a surprise – and a first uncapped Lions selection since Will Greenwood back in 1997.
More likely is that five players are battling for three or maybe four spots. Dan Biggar, Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell all toured in 2017, with Finn Russell joining them mid-tour. George Ford completes the quintet of contenders.
Only two fly-halves were selected in both 37-man squads in 2009 and 2013, so that could indicate Farrell plus two others.
Russell certainly made a case for himself with some brilliant tactical kicking at Twickenham in the Calcutta Cup, while Biggar pulled the strings for Wales on their way to the title.
At 35, Sexton is aiming for a third tour, but is currently out with injury despite finishing the Championship strongly with a 22-point haul against England to finish as the top points scorer.
Ford came off with half an hour remaining in that encounter in Dublin but has been flying for Leicester Tigers since then. England skipper Farrell started the opening game against Scotland at fly-half before moving to inside centre for the remainder of the Championship. That versatility and his Lions experience should help his cause.
Robbie Henshaw toured in 2017 but injury denied him a shot at the Test side. His exceptional performances in the 2021 Guinness Six Nations should ensure he gets another shot against South Africa.
Whether it was at 12 or 13, Henshaw was flawless chasing kicks – a key skill in South Africa – was a rock in defence and carried powerfully, in fact no other back came close to his 65 carries.
He started alongside Garry Ringrose in every game bar the win over England, with the outside centre also staking a claim for a first Lions selection, while Bundee Aki would provide some much-needed power if included.
George North’s injury is devastating considering how he had transformed himself from a brilliant winger to an equally dangerous centre. When it comes to making that transition, Tana Umaga and Aurélien Rougerie are probably the closest comparisons.
In North’s absence, Jonathan Davies may be the strongest Welsh contender, particularly considering his incredible Lions displays in Australia and New Zealand.
He came back from injury to start Wales’ last three games in the Championship and that Lions experience should play in his favour.
Even a year ago, Chris Harris would have seemed like an unlikely inclusion in a Lions squad, but the Scotland centre has been a key man in Steve Tandy’s exceptional defence and against the threat of Lukhanyo Am, that could be invaluable.
His teammate Cameron Redpath, who made such an impressive entrance onto the international stage in victory at Twickenham, is another who could make a late run.
Henry Slade was kept fairly quiet for England, but has shown for Exeter just how dangerous he can be, while looking beyond the Guinness Six Nations, there is the question of whether Manu Tuilagi is worth a gamble. He has not played since September because of an Achilles injury, but has shown time and again that he offers something completely different.
There have been seven back three players included on each of the last three tours, but with a slightly smaller squad, that number could come down to six.
Despite being dropped by England during the Guinness Six Nations, that could help the cause of Elliot Daly, a tourist in 2017 and one of very few players with Test starts in the centres, on the wing and at full-back.
His England colleague Anthony Watson boosted his hopes of a second tour with some outstanding displays, while Jonny May has had some notable moments of his own for the Red Rose in the past 12 months.
Two-time tourist and Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg continues to impress and will be targeting a first Lions Test appearance in South Africa, while his teammate Duhan van der Merwe might also go after finishing the Guinness Six Nations as the top try-scorer.
Wales have a host of candidates, not least Rees-Zammit, who showed his devastating speed and finishing ability in wins over Ireland and Scotland.
Liam Williams started all three Tests in 2017 and is equally comfortable on the wing or at full-back. And then you have Josh Adams, who scored a try in all three matches he played to continue his remarkable scoring record.
The Ireland contenders come at opposite ends of the experience spectrum. Keith Earls was part of the squad all the way back in 2009 and continues to rack up the tries, while Hugo Keenan took to Test rugby like a duck to water, although the versatility of Watson and Williams could hurt him.
Jacob Stockdale, so impressive in Ireland’s Grand Slam in 2018, was limited to just one appearance in the 2021 Championship.
There is so much flexibility in the backline for Gatland and his assistant coaches, particularly attack coach Gregor Townsend. They could go in virtually any direction at scrum-half, while at fly-half it is a case of turning five into three. The biggest gamble below is on Manu Tuilagi, but if fit, it is worth it for the X-factor he offers. There is also plenty of X-factor in the back three, as well as a level of assurance under the high ball that will be crucial.
Paul Eddison’s prediction for the backs:
Scrum-halves: Danny Care (England), Conor Murray (Ireland), Ali Price (Scotland)
Fly-halves: Dan Biggar (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Finn Russell (Scotland)
Centres: Jonathan Davies (Wales), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Garry Ringrose (Ireland), Manu Tuilagi (England)
Back three: Josh Adams (Wales), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England), Liam Williams (Wales)