Amidst all the doom and gloom of COVID-19, there is a shining rugby light on the horizon. The hugely anticipated British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021.
Players from both sides will be champing at the bit to get out there again. With aching bodies now having the enforced rest period, nobody is sure about the 2020 season. So this 2021 series should be a classic.
So, who could line up for the Lions against the Springboks on Saturday 24 July in Johannesburg? [assuming that game were to be played as scheduled].
Charlie Inglefield gives us his selection.
Full-back: Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
This is the time for Stuart Hogg. His two previous tours have not quite worked out for him, with injury cruelly ending his 2017 adventure. Unquestionably Hogg is good enough to start for the Lions and he has that priceless ability to make something happen.
His leadership skills continue to evolve, the pace is still there and there are few competitors like him. Jordan Larmour pushes him extremely close as does the versatile Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson.
Wing: Anthony Watson (Eng), Liam Williams (Wal)
There is a plethora of talent available for the Lions back three. Jonny May would walk into most teams and Josh Adams is fast entering the world-class category. George North, Andrew Conway and Darcy Graham are more than worthy in these positions as well.
I would have Elliot Daly around the squad for his sheer versatility. With altitude playing a key factor for the placekicker, Daly can bang over a penalty over easily from his own half. Anthony Watson’s pace, feet and threat on the hard grounds gets him in.
Liam Williams takes the other wing just for his consistent excellence. Whether it be under the highball, or his perfect incisions into the line, Williams has it all. Not to mention his counter-attacking ability…
Centres: Henry Slade (Eng), Manu Tuilagi (Eng)
The Lions will need power against South Africa, plain and simple. But they will also need the conjurer of tricks in heavy traffic. That is why Henry Slade shapes up as being the potential matchwinner in this series.
Slade has the gears to be world-class and England’s next Jeremy Guscott. At his best Slade has that slinky Guscott-esq pace and handling that can open up even the best of defences.
As well, nobody does power better in this position than Manu Tuilagi. If Jonathan Davies is fit he should definitely go to South Africa as the next best, and he would push each for a start.
Fly-half: Owen Farrell (Eng)
I would take Dan Biggar, Finn Russell and Owen Farrell as the fly-halves. This is tough on Jonny Sexton but, at 35 and with some doubt around his form, he will struggle to make the plane.
Finn Russell is a mighty tempting option for a starter’s role. He is killing it at Racing and seems to have buried the hatchet with Gregor Townsend. That said, can he manage the Lions around the pitch in South Africa’s backyard? For mine, no. That is why the dependable Owen Farrell takes the spot.
The tougher the challenge the more Farrell excels.
Scrum-half: Gareth Davies (Wal)
Another tasty batch of options. Wales are in rude health in this area with Rhys Webb, Tomos Williams and Gareth Davies. I would take Gareth Davies, John Cooney and Rhys Webb.
This is unlucky on the improving Ali Price, Conor Murray and Ben Youngs. Murray’s form is a concern and Cooney deserves a shot at this level. The Ulsterman has been outstanding over the last 12 months and is also a fine goal kicker.
As well, Gareth Davies has been excellent for Wales during Rhys Webb’s Toulon sabbatical and deserves to start.
Loosehead prop: Cian Healy (Ire)
Perhaps the hardest position to pick given the talent available. England’s Mako Vunipola and Ellis Genge have to be in the mix.
Scotland’s Rory Sutherland is a player that would thrive in the Lions environment. He has come back from extreme adversity and will relish the Springbok challenge.
But to start, Cian Healy’s experience and enduring excellence might have him wearing the jersey.
Hooker: Luke Cowan-Dickie (Eng)
This is a surprise selection to many but, Cowan-Dickie has been hammering at the door for England. Jamie George’s consistency has rightly given him the starting jumper for England yet, Cowan-Dickie is the coming man.
Excellent in the set-piece, a prolific try-scorer and hyperactive in the loose, Cowan-Dickie can provide the Lions with a real edge upfront. George should be there alongside Wales’ Ken Owen as reserves.
Tighthead prop: Tadgh Furlong (Ire)
Another fiercely competitive position. Kyle Sinckler alongside Ellis Genge coming on for the Lions in the last twenty would be an enticing prospect.
Scotland’s Zander Ferguson is also in with a shout. But, Furlong looks like he has his mojo back. He was the world’s best tighthead in 2018 and his tireless work-rate will serve the British & Irish Lions well.
One should not forget the joker Joe Marler either (although if he had not served his suspension, might need reconsidering) .
Second-row: Maro Itoje (ENG), James Ryan (Ire)
James Ryan’s time is coming after yet another excellent year in the Irish shirt. Alun Wyn Jones is very unlucky here but, he should definitely be in the squad.
In 12 months time, we may just see these young bucks take over. Maro Itoje and James Ryan could be a legendary Lions’ pairing. They are exhaustively industrious, aggressive and can match South Africa’s lineout. Wyn Jones and Courtney Lawes are more than worthy replacements.
Blindside flanker: Tom Curry (Eng)
Such is Tom Curry’s versatility that he could easily fill the number six jumper for the Lions. Powerful on the hoof, brutal in the tackle and a leader in the making, Curry takes this role.
So many options to back him up – Jamie Ritchie is a future British & Irish Lions starter. Aaron Wainwright as well, and what about Sam Underhill? Warren Gatland has plenty of options.
Openside flanker: Justin Tipuric (Wal)
Amidst so much back-row talent – especially at number seven – it is testimony to just how good Tipuric is. Even in his thirties, he is showing no signs of slowing down.
Tipuric has it all and his electrifying pace and skill can unsettle the Springboks. Anyone who can score that kind of try against England at Twickenham has to be considered.
There are so many contenders though. Curry, Underhill, Hamish Watson and remember Ireland’s Dan Leavy? This is a real area of strength for the Lions and they are going to need it. With Pieter-Steph du Toit lurking, this position is key.
Number eight: Billy Vunipola (Eng)
For me, this is the hardest position to pick because it is so vital for both teams.
Duane Vermeulen was a colossus for the Springboks when they powered over England in the Rugby World Cup Final. The Lions series will be his swansong and Warren Gatland has to get his selection right.
CJ Stander has his fans but, can he deliver against the very best? England has had his number over the last couple of years. Vunipola has outshone most players in the home nations.
Caelan Doris and Alex Dombrandt are serious talents, who could excel in South African conditions. But for me, Billy Vunipola if he is fit just shades it. Yes he came second best against the mighty Vermeulen in the RWC final yet, he was probably’s England’s best player that night.
If England and Saracens can get him back to 100%, he is a massive asset to the British & Irish Lions cause.
Lions ‘bolters’ and tour captain
Will Warren Gatland throw caution to the wind with his selection? I hope so.
South Africa’s conditions and style of play may demand it. If the Lions try and outmuscle the Springboks, they are unlikely to be successful. That is why Alex Dombrandt, Caelan Doris and Joe Cokanasiga should be considered. They all have their unique skillsets and the final twenty minutes of each test match will be crucial.
England was strangled by South Africa and had little flair from the bench in 2019, to make a difference. Even if the Lions are behind on the scoreboard going into the last quarter, their bench should have more x-factor. That is why a Dombrandt, a Cooney or even a Cokanasiga could come into play.
The most obvious and understandable choice for the 2021 British & Irish Lions is Alun Wyn Jones. The legendary Welshman is a natural leader and is still churning out great performances.
Old father time is calling though and another 12 months on, Jones’ brilliance may just be tipped by the young guns. Specifically Maro Itoje and James Ryan. It may well be that Gatland chooses Wyn Jones to lead the Lions in that all-important first test. But Ryan and Itoje is a mightily intriguing prospect.
If that is the combination then Owen Farrell would likely captain the match day team. He undoubtedly has his enemies but no one can question his physicality, quality and improving leadership.The Lions will need a brave leader and Jones or Farrell will step up with aplomb.
There you have it. What a series to look forward to and considering the above list, what would your selection be? Comment below, or join the conversation join the conversation on our Facebook page.
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