As British and Irish Lions fans eagerly await the announcement of Warren Gatland’s 2021 touring squad to face the Springboks this summer, let’s look at the Pacific Islands influence and the many senior and leading players of Pacifica descent. Experienced men that Lions’ management might call upon to lend their power and flair.
Harry Hudson highlights a few possible selections.
Faletau’s Form Makes Him Firm Favourite
Faletau is the in-form number eight coming out of the 2021 6 Nations campaign, putting him in a solid position for not only a seat on the plane, but a spot in the starting XV. We know about Warren Gatland’s relationship with him as his former coach, and all signs point to another call-up for a man that Gatland has selected on his previous two outings as head coach for The Lions.
Faletau’s work in and around the breakdown is second to none. His work rate around the park is phenomenal, both in attack and defence; more often than not posting his name into the top tacklers and carriers statistics whenever he dons his Welsh jersey.
He has experience with four Lions Test caps and 85 Wales Test caps to his name, so there’s no doubt about his ability to handle big pressure games. Few come bigger than the Springboks in their own backyard.
More strings to his bow than just ‘pick & go’
Possibly the best thing about Taulupe Faletau is his work from the base of the scrum. He utilises the traditional number eight pick and go with such fluidity, showing immense pace for his size over ten yards, with the agility and guile to go blind or open-side depending on how he reads the field.
His experience and form earn him the starting eight jersey.
The English number eight, a more than regular starter for Eddie Jones, has been lacklustre of late. Some would say this has only been the case during the past season, but his gradual decline in the number of outstanding performances he’s put in for England has roots stretching back several years.
Billy Vunipola is a world-class rugby player. There can be no disputing that fact but, how often do we watch an England match and feel wowed by his performances? Sadly, not often enough these days.
He carries immense power and is strong in the tackle, rarely losing the collision. He has decent ball-handling skills in the loose, despite rarely choosing to use them in favour of the crash ball. (After all, that’s what these big guys are there to do, right?). Although, that role can often bring a risk of injury and a seat more on the tour bus than in highlight reels.
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Denied the opportunity in 2017 due to injury, how rewarding for him to possibly gain a place four years on? The harsh reality is he is always going to be compared to his fellow Tongan number eight from over the river Severn, and right now, Taulupe Faletau is besting Vunipola in all departments.
Mind you, you wouldn’t rule him out of contention though
By no means does this mean that he does not belong in the Lions squad. He still has the capacity to change a game with a huge carry that sucks in defenders and creates space for outside runners. And if not providing eye-catching performances for England, rarely puts a foot wrong.
He’s reliable. Reliable enough for a seat on the plane, and can bring something special off the bench.
Billy’s big brother has been a staple of the English front row for the best part of a decade, now. The sons of Tongan International Feʻao Vunipola, the boys embraced both their adopted homeland as well as a Pacific Islands influence on their game.
Mako has represented England at two Rugby World Cups, as well as being on the past two British & Irish Lions tours, playing in all six Test matches. At 30 years old, he’s a veteran. He’s been there, done that, and logic would dictate he’ll be adding a few more caps to his collection this summer, even if they come from the bench.
Big Brother leading the way
Like his brother, his performances of late have been less eye-catching than perhaps what regular watchers of Saracens and England have gotten used to. He hasn’t been quite as underwhelming as Billy, still contributing to fast pod-play in the loose and carrying plenty around the park, and despite England’s normally dominant scrum coming under pressure, Mako didn’t give away a single scrum penalty all championship.
On the flipside; England gave away a staggering 67 penalties in this year’s 6 Nations campaign; joint top with Italy in a record-breaking high. Maro Itoje topped England’s chart for ill-discipline, unsurprisingly, followed by Mako Vunipola, who gave away nine penalties; the joint-second most in the tournament. Could this be a worry for Gatland?
Probably not, as also in joint second place on the naughty list is Alun Wyn Jones – who is guaranteed a seat on the plane and probably the captaincy.
Mako is a Test match warrior who epitomizes the Pacific Islands influence on the modern game. He should be on the plane, and likely the bench come Test time.
Bundee Aki is a talented and exciting centre. He has carrying power, decent wheels for his size, good handling, and is solid in the tackle. He does all the basics well and can provide front foot ball as a strike runner.
He’s been capped 31 times for Ireland since his debut in 2017, scoring five tries for his adopted country in that time, and this is his first actual shot at getting on a British and Irish Lions tour.
Aki’s ill discipline does him no favours
Despite being an exciting talent, and exactly the sort of player that many enjoy watching, Aki has done himself no favours in the last 18 months. Due to a poor disciplinary record that has seen him red-carded at both the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, and in the final game of this year’s 6 Nations for a high shot on the aforementioned Billy Vunipola (for which he also served a four-game ban), he has been unable to gather any momentum in his charge for a fabled red jersey.
While aggression plays a part in the sport, controlled use is what the decision makers treasure. A player who can bring that much needed zeal against the World Champions is vital. As such, the front-on style that he brings does both emulate the Pacific Islands influence on the game yet, Bundee Aki has to balance that strength with improved discipline before he is assured of a trip to the African continent.
NOTE: Embarrassment of riches in centrefield for Lions tour
The centres are one of, if not the most intriguing positions for selection in this year’s Lions squad. Owen Farrell will probably be taken as a 12 if not donning the 10 jersey. Robbie Henshaw has all but tattooed a 12 or 13 on his back with his recent form.
Cameron Redpath has thrown his hat in the ring despite being the new kid on the block for Scotland, with brilliant performances internationally and impressing for Bath in the Premiership. Jonathan Davies is a Lions stalwart and one of the most consistent performers internationally for Wales. Henry Slade is as creative as they come, and can be used as a utility almost all throughout the backline.
Realizing this, for Bundee Aki, this may be he one opportunity. And at 31 it’s unlikely he’ll still be in contention for the next British and Irish Lions trip in four year’s time.
Pacific Islands influence can play a role for British and Irish Lions
Possibles list: Manu Tuilagi
Warren Gatland is well known for making his team selections purely based on form. A logical approach, yes, but when a player of such staggering talent as Manu Tuilagi becomes available for selection, you have to sit up and take note, regardless of a lack of playing time.
Manu Tuilagi is arguably one of, if not the best players in the world on his day. His ball-carrying and strike running is head and shoulders above anyone else that plays the game. There are others who weigh as much as him, that run faster than him, but nobody does it better. For many obvious reasons, even the best defences in the world find Manu Tuilagi close to unplayable when he’s at his best.
"You dream of it as a young kid, being involved on the big stage. Now you're here, you have got to embrace it."
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Tuilagi’s impressive resume will offer options to Lions
He battered the All-Blacks in 2012 at Twickenham, bullied the legend Jean De Villiers on England’s losing tour of South Africa in that same year. He bulldozed his way through New Zealand in the Rugby 2019 World Cup semi-final, where the mighty All-Blacks had no answer for his relentless power.
Tuilagi has been injured since last September but is on the brink of a return to fitness. Even if he has had no game time, he should be in the squad. If he proves his fitness, then he should start. There is no better player available to Warren Gatland than him, whichever way you look at it.
Why Gatland can’t ignore him
His runs suck in two, three, four defenders; opening up a wealth of space in the wide channels. He cannot be left marked by just a single man, meaning defensive structures are pulled out of place in set plays as well as phase play. We hope for the sake of the Lions that he maintains his fitness and gets selected. He’s a joy to watch and deserves to be on that tour for all his torrid luck with injury.
If fit, he’s on the plane, and on the pitch come the first whistle against the Springboks.
Proven Pacific Islands influence ready to combat Springboks
It’s such a shame that the stadiums of Johannesburg and Cape Town won’t be filled with roaring red shirts to witness what will be one of the most exciting, talent-packed Lions squads to date. A Lions squad that may well have a strong Pacific Island influence come time to face up to the Springboks.
Against a team the size of South Africa, who are well-revered as an international powerhouse, you can expect some heavy collisions with some heavy men, and with the players that Gatland has at his disposal, the likelihood is that at least three of the big men above will make it onto the tour. That said, the majority of Lions fans would be happy to see all five in the red jersey.
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