CARDIFF: He may have sat out six Tests with a knee injury and still be some months off returning to full contact but Will Genia is the man most feared by the British and Irish Lions as they look ahead to their tour to Australia next year.
As Warren Gatland casts around for takers for the Lions No.9 jersey, having made it clear incumbent halfback Mike Phillips needed to rediscover form over the next few months, Genia is being touted by former Lions greats as the key threat in the Wallabies arsenal.
Former Wales halfback Robert Jones, a member of the victorious Lions squad that toured Australia in 1989, called Genia the best halfback in world rugby and said his opposite number in the Lions was a crucial selection. ''Mike Phillips is probably the incumbent Lions scrum half and if he gets the nod he'll play against probably the best scrum half in the world at the moment, [Genia], who's quick, alert and keeps momentum going in the way Australia have played,'' Jones said. ''[He] has a fantastic quick service, scores tries from 30 [metres]. You can't ask for anything more from a halfback.''
Phillips, a standout of the Lions' 2009 tour of South Africa, was the Welsh starting halfback in their clash with the Wallabies this weekend. But if the 30-year-old thought his time with Gatland gave him any sort of 'in' to the 2013 Lions side, the coach set him straight during the week.
''I don't actually think there's been any really dominating performances from a No.9 on a consistent basis,'' Gatland said, mentioning England halfbacks Ben Youngs and Danny Care, plus young Ireland No.9 Conor Murray. ''A good performance, yes, but not week in and week out.'' When asked if there were any players from the 2009 side that he considered available for selection, Gatland said he thought Phillips and Welsh centre Jamie Roberts did a ''good job'' but were under pressure to improve.
''From a Lions point of view, it's about some of the Welsh players putting their hands up in terms of selection,'' he said. ''There are maybe a couple of lines going through a couple of names and they need to re-establish themselves.''
In contrast Gatland called Genia a ''game changer'', while 1989 Lions winger Ieuan Evans said the Reds halfback would be a genuine threat. ''There were some wonderful Australian players who never had the chance to win against the Lions, it only comes around every 12 years,'' Evans said. ''So the likes of Will Genia will be desperate to get back on that field.''
Jones, who famously tussled with his Wallabies opposite Nick Farr-Jones throughout the three-Test series in 1989, said the pairing of Genia with Phillips would be explosive. ''Phillips is the opposite [to Genia] in as much as he's the most abrasive scrum half around, he's very committed,'' Jones said.
''He hasn't perhaps got the best technical scrum-half skills, but is a different player and has his own attributes that contribute to any game, so just watching the potential contest there between those two players is going to be fantastic.''
Gatland also said he would not hesitate appointing two captains for next year's tour, a senior tour captain and an in-game captain. ''You could pick potentially an experienced player. He might be tour captain, but might not be good enough to get selected for the Tests. But he could be really good for us as a tour captain,'' he said. ''Bear in mind that if form's good enough you get selected … But it's all about performance and form, and if that means leaving the captain out then I'm more than … prepared to do that.''