The cyclical nature of sport means once one major event has passed, focus soon passes to the next. That will certainly be the case once the 2019 Rugby World Cup concludes and discussion begins to switch to the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa. Who should be a test starter, who are the great midweek players, who could have a late surge into the reckoning and maybe most importantly of all who should be the man in charge?
Every armchair pundit has an opinion which is of course the correct one. Tried and tested campaigner or hungry young blood, how to best combine a mix of youth and experience? Creating a brotherhood between Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotsmen and Welshmen is a key component to any hope of achieving glory against the might of the southern hemisphere nations. This 1 to 15 attempts to combine both current form and overall pedigree to judge who is in the box seat to be a starting test match player in 2021, much will change over the next two years of course this is just a little teaser to wet the appetite.
Loose Head Prop – Mako Vunipola
Currently one of the easiest selections, Mako been sensational in the last couple of seasons. His natural ability in the loose has now been supplemented by being rock solid in the set piece. He has experience from the 2017 tour which will also be so valuable in South Africa.
Reserve – Jack McGrath
Hooker – Jamie George
George hadn’t made a test start when he started all 3 tests for the Lions in New Zealand and proved he was more than just an impact player. He ousted both Ken Owens and Rory Best to be the starting hooker there which says it all really. The absence of former England captain Dylan Hartley due to injury has provided the opportunity for George to cement his place as England’s hooker and he has provided very solid performances, if not as eye catching as his performances as an impact sub which is possibly viewed as a positive by those in charge.
Reserve – Stuart McInally
Tight Head Prop – Tadgh Furlong
Tadgh Furlong must surely be viewed as not only a great prop but also one of the worlds top players, that isn’t often said of props. His work rate is phenomenal for such a big man, we often see props get subbed off around the 50/60 minute mark, but not with Furlong. The set piece ability and discipline of the Irishman further strengthen his hold on the number 3 shirt.
Reserve – Kyle Sinckler
Lock – Maro Itoje
The initial hysteria around the abilities of Itoje have died down and those lung bursting performances he produces are now viewed as the norm which is a testament to his ability. He has had a few disciplinary issues and injury niggles in recent times but at his best he is a guaranteed starter. With his performances in New Zealand still quite fresh this will improve his stake for a place. His leadership qualities also bring a lot to the team and his ability to get under the skin of the opposition will be an essential trait against opposition like South Africa.
Reserve – Courtney Lawes
Lock – James Ryan
Much like Itoje, the man from Leinster made a huge impact when he burst onto the scene. He is currently Ireland’s first choice in a hugely strong second row department. The work he gets through on a rugby pitch is sensational, often none of it will find its way to the highlight reel but every side needs a man who is willing to do the dirty work for little credit and James Ryan is the man for this. He does strike as the natural successor to the great Alun Wyn Jones and a potential future Lions Captain.
Reserve – Ian Henderson
Blind Side – Peter O’Mahony
A position of huge strength in Britain and Ireland, O’Mahony just gets the nod. His game is perfectly tailored to taking on South Africa. A scavenger who seems to make it to every breakdown he has a bit of an old school element to him, there is nothing flash but he is unbelievably effective. His ability in the lineout is like having an extra lock at the set piece. If there is a match which is maybe a little scrappy O’Mahony will likely be MOTM, the man you love to play with and hate to play against. In this team he would be the Captain, a man of little focus with the sole focus of winning.
Reserve – Josh Navidi
Open Side – Justin Tipuric
Another position of huge strength, each nation has a potential candidate to start at 7 for the Lions. Tipuric is the one who can do things that the others cannot. A wonderful player to watch in the loose he still does everything anyone would want from an open side. His ability in the loose would also compliment the other members of the back row very well.
Reserve – Hamish Watson
Number 8 – Billy Vunipola
Billy Vunipola just gets the nod at 8. There are not many better ball carriers in world rugby than big Billy. His ability in this department will be essential to penetrate what will a fierce South African defence. The prospect of Vunipola against Vermeulen is mouth watering. He agonisingly missed out on the last tour due to injury here is hoping that doesn’t happen again, having said that in Faletau another world class player will be a very able standby.
Reserve – Taulupe Faletau
Scrum Half – Conor Murray/Gareth Davies
Murray has not had the best of Six Nations in 2019. However, no other scrum half has really stood up and said they are the man. Murray at his best is the best scrum half in the world in terms of a game manager. He has a calming influence and the ability to play well behind a pack which isn’t dominating which is a rare trait. His knack for scoring important tries and his experience will also prove vital.
Reserve – Gareth Davies
Out Half – Owen Farrell
The only way Farrell won’t start as 10 is if Farrell starts at 12. He is rightfully now considered as one of the worlds best players. His temperament, when he is no doubt targeted by the South Africans, will be tested but he has a wise head and his likely reaction will be to give as good as he gets. His distribution, kicking and defence are as good as it gets for an outside half and if the Lions are to be successful they will be reliant on Farrell reaching his high levels which we have become accustomed to. Johnny Sextons inclusion is unlikely due to his age, although he is still performing excellently, you get the feeling that the knocks he has endured through his brave playing style may begin to take their toll after the world cup.
Reserve – Finn Russell
Left Wing – Jacob Stockdale
What a couple of years it has been for the Ulsterman, he has propelled himself to become a superstar. He has a knack for scoring from nothing and for getting the bounce of the ball to go his way which can surely not be all down to luck. There are some defensive frailties still in terms of decision making but if he continues to improve at his current rate until 2021 then what a player we have on our hands.
Reserve – George North
Inside Centre – Manu Tuilagi
It’s brilliant seeing Tuilagi back playing rugby at the highest level after an injury ravaged half decade. When he is at the top of his game he is almost unplayable and there isn’t really anyone else who offers what he can at the levels he can reach. He offers great go forward ball and would act as an excellent foil to those outside him as he needs so much attention. One just hopes he gets an injury run both for himself and the game.
Reserve – Robbie Henshaw
Outside Centre – Jonathan Davies
Already a Lions legend, Davies saves his best for the big occasion. Arguably the player of the series in the last two tours he is a great player. He often makes that initial burst which leads to his team scoring. Davies would also be the most experienced Lion in this XV and therefore his role would be heightened from the previous tours he has been on.
Reserve – Garry Ringrose
Right Wing – Liam Williams
Liam Williams is that versatile player every team needs and often meant he found himself on the bench to cover various positions. His current form and his form on the New Zealand tour means he would merit a starting place somewhere in the back three. He doesn’t have the explosive pace of others but he has a wiry strength and a subtlety in his running which make him a nightmare for defenders, also under the high ball there are not many better.
Reserve – Jonny May
Full Back – Stewart Hogg
Unfortunately, the only position filled by a Scottish player the simple fact of the matter is that England, Ireland and Wales currently have better players. Hogg is undoubtedly the superstar Scottish rugby has, on his day it’s a toss up between him and Israel Folau for top full back in the world. He has electricity in his legs and can open tight defences with a moment of magic. The problem is he is another who seems to pick up a lot of injuries, it would be a shame if we never get to see him light up a Lions test series at the peak of his powers.
Reserve – Elliott Daly
Head Coach – Warren Gatland
He has been there done it and got the t-shirt, if Warren is available it must be him despite the successes of others, most notably Joe Schmidt. With a win against Australia and a draw against New Zealand his credentials are unrivalled. He knows the players and knows how to handle the Lions circus and he seems keen on the idea of remaining unbeaten on Lions tours against all three of the southern hemisphere nations. There aren’t many things that no one in history has done but Warren would have the chance.
Written by Stefan Hamilton