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James Haskell: Paul O’Connell could take over from captain Sam Warburton

 Paul O'ConnellThere have been some stand-out performances by the Lions and perhaps more questions raised than answered. It’s disappointing the opposition haven’t fielded full-strength sides although the Reds did feature a number of their stars, not least Quade Cooper.

And I have to say I’m amazed Wallaby coach Robbie Deans didn’t bring him back into the fold, if for no other reason than to give himself options.

As an Australian player I would be very disappointed not to get a shot at taking on the Red Jersey if there was the opportunity. There is also the very valid point the Lions coaches made: they want as tough a selection of games as possible in the build-up to the Test series, or they will have to look to create that competition in training, which is never ideal with short turnarounds and the concerns of causing injuries.

All the talk pre-tour was of Warren Gatland’s selection. His choice of big powerful men, who could and would adapt easily into his framework; the ‘pattern’, that has been utilised to such effect for both London Wasps and Wales, of playing right into the five-metre channels, coming back with forward runners for an initial hit, then, hopefully, creating a mismatch for the backs out wide.

I maintain a lot of selection issues will have been down to players being chosen because they are familiar with that pattern and how to implement and control it at the highest level. The Lions are not about development for future tours, but about getting the best squad together and winning. There are no awards for second place or other games to look forward to.

Much has been made of the Lions being ‘big slabs of meat’ in contrast to the Australians being more agile and better handlers.

If the first four games were anything to go by this has been dispelled to a certain extent. From what has been seen, the Lions are striking a good balance between power and skill. This is epitomised by the success the Lions have had in getting big men to cut through the opposition and deliver deft off-loads.

It’s one thing to be big and just seek contact, it’s another to use some footwork, create chances and finish as the Lions have been doing. I have been impressed by the patience shown by the 9s and 10s in controlling the play, creating the space for the Lions to go wide, which has resulted in a few walk-in tries.

I was really excited by the selection of Manu Tuilagi and Brian O’Driscoll in the centres. Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies were outstanding against the Barbarians and really put a marker down. The two Welshman were the perfect template of what Warren wanted from his players: Roberts trucking the ball up the middle before his knock, either making yards or off-loading, Davies physical in defence, with good footballing skills, on his shoulder at all times.

However, I have wanted to see what Manu, if fit, could do at 12, because when he gets the ball, even if you plan to stop him, you struggle. He has buckets of power, pace and naughty handling skills. This, in conjunction with BOD’s god-like talent, could really set the tour alight.

I can never watch a game without focusing on the back row, who, to a man, have been excellent. If you had asked me pre-tour my starting back row would have been Sam Warburton and Justin Tupiric with Sean O’Brien at No.8. Croft was on the bench, ready to pounce once the opposition were tired and there was more space for his pace.

This back row gives you everything – power, link play and great work at the breakdown. However it’s not pre-tour anymore and some big performances have occurred. Dan Lydiate has worked like a dog. Tupiric was everywhere linking and supporting. Toby Faletau has generally been excellent in everything he has done.

Given his chance O’Brien took things up another level. His work rate and ball carrying made a big difference. Another standout player for me has been Jamie Heaslip. He has made some very clever breaks, showing pace and good feet.

If you asked me who my back row would be after four, I’d say Tupiric, O’Brien and Heaslip at No. 8. Again short in the lineout, but with the second rows all playing very well that’s not such an issue.

Controversial, especially concerning captain Warburton, but I feel Paul O’Connell is the ideal replacement candidate. He is in great form and ready to step up.

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