It’s hard to believe, today sees us reach the one year mark before the British & Irish Lions’ first match of their 2021 South Africa tour. This time next year (barring any delays given the current state of the world) the Lions will be taking on the Stormers in Cape Town as the first of 8 matches on their tour, culminating in a 3-Test series against the World Champions South Africa.
In honour of this day, I have decided to try predicting the players who will make up the Lions touring party. The last 2 touring parties have been just either side of the 40-man mark, but I have gone a little larger due to Warren Gatland’s decision in 2017 to add 6 extra players midway through the tour to help keep the Test team fresh. The “Geography 6” did not get a great reception when they were announced, which led to Gatland largely backtracking and keeping them as unused substitutes. With player welfare having become even more important over the last 4 years and the 5 games before the Tests being spread over just 15 days, I can see Gatland picking a larger squad this time around, so I have gone on the idea of a 46-man touring party, which would allow Gatland to put out 2 completely different matchday 23s without any overlap of players.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has not made selection easy for Warren Gatland, as it has left the Six Nations unfinished and also ruled out the Summer and Autumn Test windows, so 2021’s Six Nations will be huge, but players may also find that their form in club matches is given more consideration this time due to the lack of international rugby. So, who do I think will be travelling to South Africa?
With 46 players going, I would expect 40 of them to be specialist hookers. Ken Owens is probably in prime position to start the Tests and I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him captain some of the early matches. Owens is such a reliable player and was an ever-present for Wales under Gatland. With such limited time together, that familiarity will be key for the Lions. Next up is Jamie George, who has had control of the England number 2 shirt for a couple of years now. While he doesn’t seem as flashy as in his earlier years, he is super reliable at the set piece and will tackle all day long. For the other 2 spots, things get very interesting. Rory Best’s retirement has left Ireland lacking experience at the position and the lack of matches between now and the squad announcement is likely to count against them. Scotland have seen the number 2 jersey split between Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown, so it is highly possible that they could take both remaining spots, but I think that the strong carrying of Luke Cowan-Dickie will earn him a spot in the party,leaving space for just one of the Scots. While McInally brings a more open attacking game, I’m not sure that’s what Gatland will be looking for on this tour, so I can see him picking Fraser Brown, who can also cover as a back row in an emergency.
When I started looking at props, I must admit that I was surprised just how many players immediately clicked into place, leaving me only a few slots to fill.
At tighthead, Kyle Sinckler has become one of the best in the world, with good hands t go with his incredible strength and refusal to take a backwards step. It’s fair to say that his early removal in the World Cup final was a huge loss for England. I expect Sinckler’s biggest rival for the 3 shirt in the Tests will be Tadhg Furlong, who is another that can make a positive impact in both the set piece and the loose. 3 years ago, Tomas Francis was one of the infamous “Geography 6” but this time around I expect him to be a part of the initial squad as he has become a force in the scrums and is arguably another 3 whose removal benefited the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup. And for the final spot, I can see Zander Fagerson getting the nod, as he has become a regular for Scotland and impressed in a scrum that was improving during the Six Nations.
Moving over to the other side of the front row, I think that the current lack of a nailed down starter for Wales will leave them without representation at this position. Joe Marler had such a positive impact off the bench during the Rugby World Cup final, that I expect him to get a call-up alongside England teammate Mako Vunipola, who is arguably one of the best all-round looseheads when on top form. Cian Healy is another of the top looseheads and will provide plenty of experience. By the time the tournament comes around he will be 33, so I can see the tour being his international swansong. As for the final spot, strong performances over the net year could see Ellis Genge squeeze in as a physical carrier against the Super Rugby and Invitational teams, but right now I think the more likely player is Rory Sutherland, who was having a strong Six Nations before the pandemic brought it to an early end.
When initially starting my selections, I set aside 6 spots for the second row, but by the end I increased that to 7, as I noticed that a number of the locks I was picking were also experienced at playing in the back row, and with the strength of the Springbok pack I can imagine Warren Gatland going for a large pack. First off is the likely pick for the captaincy: Alun Wyn Jones, who brings so much experience and leadership to the team, as well as very rarely having a bad game. Next up were the youngsters that have quickly become key members of their teams, Maro Itoje and James Ryan. It wouldn’t surprise me to see these 3 making up the lock contingent for the first Test, but if anyone was to put themselves in contention, I can see it being Iain Henderson, especially as he could also provide a super physical option at 6. At this point I should probably make clear that I have excluded Geroge Kruis due to his upcoming move to Japan that will bring an end to his England career. Completing the group of specialist locks, I have Jake Ball getting in due to his larger size helping to bring some balance in the scrums. And then we come to Courtney Lawes, who in recent years has spent almost as much time at 6 as lock (though I personally think he is somewhat wasted at 6 internationally) and bolter Tadhg Beirne, who as well as being a large unit capable of covering lock/back row, has great ability in the loose and will be a big threat at the breakdown.
It’s probably no surprise that taking an extra lock came at the expense of a back row spot due to the players able to cover both, leaving me with 7 spots to fill here.
Personally, I feel that Taulupe Faletau could find that the pandemic leaves him with too little time to prove himself back to top form, so I can see him missing out here in favour of Billy Vunipola and CJ Stander, who can also cover openside flanker and will be keen to shine in the Test squad to show the Springboks just what they missed out on. They are the only specialist 8s I have going, with Ross Moriarty finding himself too far down the list with so many options at back row, however Josh Navidi has experience playing the position at international level and has the strength to hold his own against larger players. Navidi can be used at 8 due to the inclusion of fellow opensides Justin Tipuric and Hamish Watson, who both bring a lot to the attacking game in open play as well, while Sam Underhill can come in to fill the role of reliable tackler that Gatland used to see filled by Dan Lydiate, while he can also pick his moments to attack the breakdown. With so many other similar options, Jamie Ritchie and Tom Curry both see them missing out this time around in favour of Aaron Shingler, who provides a lineout option and more ballast at 6 to nullify the size of the South African packs.
Moving into the backs and scrum half was probably the hardest position for me to fill, just because I think that a lot of the current starters have serious questions about them. Wales are in the early days of trying to figure out their depth chart at 9 under Wayne Pivac, but Gareth Davies was so successful under Gatland that I’m confident he will go, while Rhys Webb was another Gatland favourite until his move to France made him ineligible.
For the other 2 spots at the position, I considered the Scottish pair of Ali Price and George Horne but don’t think Price has done enough to stand out from the crowd, while I see Horne being considered too small and not enough of a game manager to make the party this time around. Tomos Williams has been largely impressive for Wales, but I also see him missing out as I can’t see Gatland picking 75% of the scrum halves from the same nation. So that brings us on to England and Ireland, who wee both going through the Six Nations with players who were in the 9 shirts through the strength of their name and history rather than their recent performances. If we’re looking at the form performer before the pandemic, that was clearly John Cooney, and I think that he will get the recognition from Warren Gatland if he can continue the performances once rugby returns, especially as he also provides an option off the tee. This leaves a race between Conor Murray and Ben Youngs, and I think that based on current form, Ben Youngs has the slight edge, while he also has the running game to complement his tactical kicking that Murray lacks.
So at fly half, I felt comfortable that Gatland would look to go for 3 specialists, with the potential for a couple of selections elsewhere in the back line also being able to cover the position in an emergency.
So immediately this throws up the question of where to class someone who will clearly make the squad: Owen Farrell. Farrell is perfectly capable of playing both fly half or centre, so could very easily be classed as a centre, allowing for another specialist fly half to be called up to the squad. However, for reasons that I will discuss shortly, I see him being looked at more as a fly half. Dan Biggar also makes the list as he continues to put in great performances that may not lead to super flashy attacking play, but effective, pragmatic play. Both Farrell and Biggar were picked alongside Jonathan Sexton in New Zealand, but I can see the trio being broken this time as Sexton’s poor form will see him left out in favour of Finn Russell, who probably won’t make the Test 23 but will prove a great attacking talent for the midweek games.
Now, on the off-chance that Farrell does make the squad but is considered more as a centre, I still don’t see Sexton getting picked barring a massive upturn in form, which leaves that final spot to be fought between Gareth Anscombe, Adam Hastings and George Ford. For me, Hastings loses out due to his lack of experience leading a team at this point, so it then comes down to the fitness of Gareth Anscombe. It’s worth remembering that he was set to be the starter for Wales at the Rugby World Cup before his injury against England, so if he can prove himself fully fit and back to top form, then I think his ability to also cover 15 will earn him the spot over George Ford, while any questions over Anscombe’s readiness will see Ford get the nod.
Owen Farrell being classed as a centre means that there are 5 spots to fill at the position in this squad. Now, when picking his centres, I think that Warren Gatland will take a moment to consider the opposition they are likely to face and choose to go for a highly physical set of midfielders to combat the Springboks.
As arguably one of the best 13s in the world, Jonathan Davies seems certain to make the squad provided he is fit, while I also think that Manu Tuilagi will be guaranteed a spot if fit. Hadleigh Parkes’ move to Japan has made it unlikely that he will be selected. The Scottish midfield seems somewhat unsettled at the moment, which I think will hinder them getting any representation at the position. For Ireland, I think that the physicality of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, combined with their experience playing together, will see the pair selected.
Now, these 4 players will do a good job bringing physical parity to the match, but there’s not much in the way of playmaking ability. This could be answered by utilising Farrell alongside one of them, but I can instead be the form of Henry Slade being rewarded with a spot in the touring party, as he has the extra playmaking ability from his time as a fly half earlier in his career, while he has also demonstrated surprisingly impressive physicality over recent years to make the England 13 shirt his own.
And so we come to the back 3 and if you were counting, you’ll know that I’ve left 8 spots free to cover this area.
Stuart Hogg is the first person named here as an obvious selection at fullback and will be hoping to get his shot in the Tests after being forced to leave the tour of New Zealand early. Also joining him will be fullbacks Liam Williams and Anthony Watson, who will also be able to play on the wing if Gatland desires. Jonny May and Josh Adams have been 2 of the form wingers in the Six Nations in recent years so will be hoping to secure the wing spots for the Tests. And that leaves 3 spots for players who I think can have hugely positive impacts on the tour but will need some incredible fortune to make the Test squad as things stand. Darcy Graham has looked highly impressive for Scotland and will benefit from the experience of being on this tour with a view to competing for a Test spot on the next tour. Andrew Conway has taken over from Jacob Stockdale as the top Irish winger at the moment, while Stockdale will actually miss out on the final spot to bolter James Lowe, who becomes eligible through residency later this year and has averaged a try every 1.7 games though his time with the Chiefs and Leinster.
So, that’s my prediction. Who do you think Gatland will take with him?