SA2021 tour confirmed: British and Irish Lions selection form XV

Warren Gatland
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The British and Irish Lions selection discussion will be hugely entertaining now that the tour is assured to go ahead in South Africa.

The 2021 Six Nations proved that the Six Nations has to be the premier tournament in world rugby. There were last-minute win’s, shocks and general entertainment to keep everyone happy. Wales were on course for an unlikely Grand Slam and lost in the last seconds to France in a thriller. England’s wings were clipped big-time losing to all of the home nations. Scotland flattered to deceive by denying Les Bleus the hope of a Six Nations title, Ireland got their mojo back and Italy, well….. Italy were Italy when it comes to rugby.

Possible British and Irish Lions selection options

Alun-Wyn Jones to captain

We run out of superlatives for Alun Wyn Jones. He was immense again in this year’s Six Nations none more so against France on Saturday evening. Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje played themselves out of the captaincy stakes making Jones the obvious and deserved choice. Ken Owens, Johnny Sexton and Stuart Hogg would be honourable mentions in these discussions. It’s not just the 150-odd caps that Jones has earned in one of rugby’s most unforgiving positions. It is the fact that he is still one of the fittest in a fit Welsh squad and can easily play eighty minutes. We are waiting for his form to dip but Jones is as strong and as influential as ever.

Tadhg Beirne has earned his spot

There are so many options for Warren Gatland in the back row. For me, Tadhg Beirne has been outstanding in the 2021 Six Nations. His work rate and ability to turn over opposition ball has been first class. The Lions will likely be up against a formidable Springbok back row containing Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen. All of whom are physical and excellent at the breakdown. Beirne is the ideal man alongside Tom Curry and Talupe Faletau to meet fire with fire. Against England Beirne was again excellent, turning England over and getting in the way of England’s lineouts. He has an engine, can carry well and never shirks the tackle.

Biggar for the number ten jersey

Such has been the demise in Owen Farrell’s form over the last 12 months, Johnny Sexton, Dan Biggar, Finn Russell would be ahead of him. It is such a tough call for Gatland on who to pick in the number ten jumper. Johnny Sexton has had a form renaissance in this year’s Championship and has the experience. Dan Biggar is a test match animal and was one of Wales’ best in Paris on Saturday.

The thinking here is that the Springboks will look to the skies to pressurise the Lions as they did in the 2019 World Cup. Biggar is among the best in not only diffusing the high ball but claiming his own up and under’s. He is physical in the tackle and has added to his attacking game under Wayne Pivac. Biggar is also experienced so he gets my vote just ahead of the benched Johnny Sexton. Finn Russell is a must in this Lions squad. If they have to chase the game then Russell is the man to pull out a piece of magic. I think Warren Gatland will take Owen Farrell possibly at the expense of Finn Russell.

Hogg, Watson and Liam Williams in the back three

This is another area of strength for the British and Irish Lions. There are many contenders not least the exciting emergence of Louis Rees-Zammit. This is Stuart Hogg’s time after two previous Lions tours. He is a consistent shining beacon of industry and attacking intent for Scotland. Hogg would work well with the twinkle-toed Anthony Watson, who has been criminally underused by England in recent years. The other wing position is very difficult to call. There are the likes of Jonny May, Josh Adams, Duhan van der Merwe, James Lowe and Keith Earls.

Liam Williams has been there and done it in the 2017 tour to New Zealand. Williams is excellent under the high ball which will happen with the Springboks and his defence is solid as well. Against France, he somehow managed to hold up Charles Ollivon over the try-line on Saturday night. Hogg, Williams and Watson have a balance of pace, trickery, dependability under the high ball. Louis-Rees Zammit and Jonny May are excellent back-ups.

Davies and Slade in the centres

Another very contentious set of positions. Jonathan Davies has been beset of injuries in recent times but his ability to step up on the biggest occasions is unquestioned. Superb in 2013 and even more so against the All Blacks in 2017, if he can stay fit then he starts.

Who to partner Davies? Henry Slade, Owen Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Manu Tuilagi, George North, Garry Ringrose? All are capable and all have their arguments for inclusion. I don’t think Henry Slade has got near to his potential given how England are playing at the moment. In the right team and with decent ball Slade is capable of splitting open any team’s defence. Slade has the pace, the step and the vision to complement Davies’ all-round game. He also has a howitzer boot and can play at fly-half or full-back. Slade shades Robbie Henshaw to partner Jonathan Davies.

Conor Murray in at scrum-half

Scrum-half is one position that is a potential weakness for Warren Gatland. Murray has the experience and against England he was superb. With Faf de Klerk likely to be the Springbok number nine expect a kick-fest. Therefore Murray is the one to return serve to South Africa.

Ben Youngs is blowing hot and cold at the moment – he may get in on the strength of his experience. I would have loved to see Dan Robson been given a start by England. Robson can inject pace and create opportunities. The Welsh have Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams and Rhys Webb. It is a shame that Webb has fallen off given his quality. Gareth Davies is getting back to his best form and Jamie Gibson-Park is very capable. Conor Murray to start, Gareth Davies and Ben Youngs would be my choices.

Faletau, Curry and Beirne

There are so many contenders in the back row. Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson, Billy Vunipola, Jamie Ritchie, CJ Stander, Tadgh Beirne etc. Who do you pick out of that? The answer may lie with Gatland’s desire to combat South Africa’s traditional physicality and dominance at the breakdown. The Lions will need a combination of size, turnover ability and pace.

Faletau has overtaken his cousin Billy Vunipola and should lockdown at number eight. I would be mightily tempted to have Josh Navidi on the blindside but as mentioned above Tadhg Beirne has earnt his spot. Tom Curry has been a source of consistent mayhem for an underperforming England team and would slot in on the openside. Hamish Watson and Justin Tipuric would be next in line.

Jones and Itoje in the engine room

James Ryan’s time is undoubtedly coming but he has been slightly off in 2021. I would have Itoje and Ryan locking at the turn of the year but Alun-Wyn Jones has been irresistible in this year’s Six Nations. Maro Itoje despite his disciplinary problems is the world’s premier lock at the moment. If he can stamp out the penalties he will be such a nuisance to Faf de Klerk and Handrie Pollard. James Ryan, Courtney Lawes, Jonny Gray and Iain Henderson are more than capable replacements.

Furlong, Owens and Cian Healy

The stocks of Jamie George and Mako Vunipola have decreased in 2021. Tadhg Furlong’s return to rugby has been long overdue. He was part of a dominant set-piece on Saturday against England and starts at tighthead. Ken Owens deserves his chance to start and is an excellent tourist. Cian Healy gets the vote on the loosehead with Kyle Sinckler a strong back-up.

Rory Sutherland, Wyn Jones are great options and I would still take Jamie George for his 2017 experience.

Sam Simmonds and Huw Jones are possible bolters

Everyone loves a bolter on a Lions tour. Sam Simmonds is an impact player and similar to Finn Russell for his x-factor ability. Yes, he has not played for England but only Eddie Jones believes he is not capable. Simmonds may not have the size of a Vermeulen but he is equally destructive in open-play and his set-piece technique has proved immeasurably.

Huw Jones has got back into the Scottish squad after a lean few years. At his best, he is a scything centre with pace, power and great running lines. He tore England to shreds back in 2018 and is showing signs that he is back to his best. Jones also spent time in Cape Town at the Stormers, gaining respect in the alpha-male rugby environment out there.

British and Irish Lions Starting XV

  1. Cian Healy
  2. Ken Owens
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Alun Wyn Jones (C)
  5. Maro Itoje
  6. Tadhg Beirne
  7. Tom Curry
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Dan Biggar
  11. Liam Williams
  12. Jonathan Davies
  13. Henry Slade
  14. Anthony Watson
  15. Stuart Hogg

Replacements: Justin Tipuric, Gareth Davies, Johnny Sexton, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, Jamie George, Rory Sutherland

With the huge relief from fans and stakeholders now that the SA2021 tour was confirmed, the discussion over any British and Irish Lions selection will be hugely entertaining. Some will make calls that others disagree with – will Owen Farrell be included in the squad? Which young player will be called up to the first test squad? Plenty to ponder before the side flys to the African continent.

Do you agree or disagree with the above selection? Join the conversation on the LWOS boards, Twitter, and our Facebook page.

 

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