French renaissance artist
Little-known coach Didier Retière has led the revival in France’s fortunes
Garry DoyleOwain JonesJamie Lyall
22nd Mar 2021
As the most bonkers Six Nations of ebbs and flows reaches its climax, selecting a British and Irish Lions team is a fiendishly hard task.
Do you sling in all of the Welshmen who so nearly climbed Everest? Do you back the staying power of England’s greats despite their grimmest of championships? What of Ireland’s ageing protagonists and Scotland’s emerging pretenders? These are the decisions facing Warren Gatland in the months ahead, with South Africa lying in wait, wherever and however the series goes ahead.
For now, our writers play coach, and choose their Lions 23s. These sides are selected not just on form and ability, but on who is best equipped to subdue the world champions. Let us know who you’d pick on our social media channels, where our scribes have called it right and where they’re talking rubbish. And remember, it’s only a bit of fun.
Here we go…
Any Lions squad that is taking on the world champions will need a hard edge. There will be no room for players who blow hot and cold under the incessant pressure the Springboks will undoubtedly put Gatland under. The one big concern for the New Zealander is that England are out of form and shorn of confidence. At the start of this tournament, they would have had at least half-a-dozen shoo-ins into the starting line-up but that is now in doubt.
In the back three, we must start with Stuart Hogg. The Scottish captain is irresistible in attack, cutting into broken field with his hitch-kick, but he is also a fine footballer with a howitzer of a boot and much improved leadership skills. The only weakness in his game is he can get caught out defensively, which is why Liam Williams is in on the left wing as a sweeper in the backfield. Williams is rock-solid under the high ball, a useful operator on the ground and puts in bone-shuddering hits. On the right flank, Louis Rees-Zammit is parachuted in. The 20-year-old has been a revelation in this year’s tournament. He dotted down four times in five games but had a try chalked off for a forward pass by Dan Biggar and another for touching the base of the corner post against France. His pace on hard tracks will unnerve the Boks. Nothing has yet fazed him. To cover the outside backs, an improving Elliot Daly will be the ultimate Swiss Army knife as he can play at outside-centre and any of the back-three positions.
In midfield is the rejuvenated George North. So effective throughout the tournament, North has racked up the metres with his direct running, but his distribution and defensive game have also been on point. North could easily switch to wing if there was an injury. Clearly, Manu Tuilagi would be considered if he could prove his fitness but, as he’s not due to play until early May, he must be considered a long shot, while Owen Farrell provides a big-name option at 12 if Gatland decides to change tack. But my pick is Robbie Henshaw who, at 6ft 3in and more than 16st, would form a formidable midfield partnership with North. Henshaw has been outstanding in Ireland’s campaign, making defensive reads, carrying hard into contact and showing decent footwork.
To get this backline going, you want a player who will give the South African defence sleepless nights and that is why, with a decent outing against his French friends on Friday night, Finn Russell should be picked. With an improved pack and front-foot ball, the Scot would be free to cast his spell with his mix of juggling tricks, putting the Lions’ bigger ball-carriers into space or going over the Springbok blitz defence. Backing him up to close out the game would be the outstanding Dan Biggar, who performed such a role at the 2019 Grand Slam campaign with Gareth Anscombe. Scrum-half would have been a nagging issue for Gatland, so Conor Murray’s imperious, controlled performance would have brought great solace. To complement the more conservative Cork man, Tomos Williams can add an X-Factor off the bench.
In the forwards, Tadhg Furlong locks down the pack. The 20st Wexford man is a force of nature, with soft hands, a decent sidestep and a huge heart – indeed, the heartbeat of the Lions pack. He would stand alongside Ken Owens who has been transformational to the Welsh eight in this tournament. His accuracy at the lineout, hard carrying and tackling, plus his leadership skills would be vital to the Lions, with Jamie George backed to regain his best form off the bench. Loosehead is another backed on a little faith, with Mako Vunipola not hitting the heights, the two-time tourist still has the work-rate, tackling and carrying game to be an asset to the squad.
In the engine room, Alun Wyn Jones is picked as captain after he confounded expectations, again, that his powers had waned. Respected around the world, he is the cool head needed in the final minutes. Maro Itoje has had a difficult Six Nations, racking up the penalty count, but his class is not disputed, with his athleticism around the fringes a constant menace for the opposition and work over the ball an asset. Cover at second row would be provided by James Ryan who, at 6ft 8in, can eyeball monsters such as RG Snyman and Eben Etzebeth.
The back row is, as ever, a head-scratcher. The key consideration is one of balance. England’s best player throughout the tournament has been Tom Curry and he brings the muscular hard carrying and hard-hitting energy in the collisions that can turn games. Dovetailing with him on the other flank is Sam Underhill, whose reputation has been enhanced during England’s travails. Pound for pound, few players hit harder than the Bath man, who can reprise his club relationship with Taulupe Faletau at the base of the scrum. The double Lion has been back to his buccaneering best this Six Nations after a few injury-plagued years. Providing cover is Tadhg Beirne, who has been a revelation during the Six Nations with his carrying, breakdown work and intelligent defensive work. He wins the toss-up with Justin Tipuric, who is pushing hard for a squad place.
15. Stuart Hogg; 14. Louis Rees-Zammit, 13. George North, 12. Robbie Henshaw, 11. Liam Williams, 10. Finn Russell, 9. Conor Murray; 1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Ken Owens, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Alun Wyn Jones (c), 6. Tom Curry, 7. Sam Underhill, 8. Taulupe Faletau.
Reps: Jamie George, Rory Sutherland, Kyle Sinckler, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Tomos Williams, Dan Biggar, Elliot Daly.
Well, this was torture. Imagine what it is going to be like then for Gatland, particularly when he sifts through his list of outstanding fly-halves and locks. And that’s before we get to the back three, where pangs of guilt were felt as the brilliant young Welsh wing Rees-Zammit didn’t make the cut, solely because the alternatives were just so strong.
If either he or Hugo Keenan, another stand-out in his debut Six Nations season, makes it on to the plane – assuming there is a plane and a tour – then no one could begrudge them their place. Nor, for that matter, would there be a quality deficit if Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe or Sean Maitland got Gatland’s call.
In all likelihood, the former Wales coach will be picking up the phone to his former players, Liam Williams and Josh Adams – Williams’ positional flexibility and competence under the high ball complemented by Adams’ ruthlessness whenever the tryline is in sight. Jonny May is another who possesses that quality; Anthony Watson has form while it would be a sin to ignore Stuart Hogg’s claims.
Williams, Watson and May make my starting XV, deepest apologies expressed to Hogg, who has to be satisfied with a place on the bench, where his counter-attacking surges could become critical in the final quarter of any Test.
The midfield options aren’t as plentiful and there will be a strong temptation at some point in the tour to try out the Irish pairing of Henshaw and Garry Ringrose on the Saturday team. If they shine, keep them in. Farrell’s flexibility also raises the possibility of an English combo, although his form isn’t near where it should be. Henry Slade is strangely underrated but so is Ringrose.
At half-back, we’re sticking by the policy of going with the tried and trusted – Ben Youngs and Farrell have plenty of experience working together; have plenty of experience, full stop; Finn Russell doesn’t make our squad, George Ford does, the reasoning being that Russell is as prone to losing big games as he is to winning them.
If selecting the backs was hard, choosing the pack was worse. I’ve opted for Vunipola, Owens and Furlong in the front row; Itoje and Jones in the second row, with a combination of Underhill, Curry and Faletau in the back row.
Two things to say here: An alternative pack – Wyn Jones, George, Kyle Sinckler, Ryan, Iain Henderson, Beirne, Hamish Watson and Billy Vunipola – are more than capable of outplaying the eight mentioned above on any given day. Now we know the reasons why coaches are paid a lot more than reporters, foresight a much more valuable gift to possess than hindsight.
Secondly, the notable absence of Scots from the starting XV is admittedly harsh while the presence of so many English players – eight in my fictional team, 11 in the squad – would make you think they won the Triple Crown rather than the Triple Frown. Perhaps it is the memory of how they played against New Zealand in the World Cup semis, and France most recently in the Six Nations, that sways my judgment, that and the knowledge that Gatland is the best man-manager in world rugby, whereas Eddie Jones is a poor man’s Jose Mourinho. Those English players will enjoy their escape from the latter, and will thrive under the former.
15: Liam Williams; 14. Anthony Watson, 13. Garry Ringrose, 12. Robbie Henshaw, 11. Jonny May; 10. Owen Farrell, 9. Ben Youngs; 1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Ken Owens, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Alun Wyn Jones (c), 6. Tom Curry, 7. Sam Underhill, 8. Taulupe Faletau.
Reps: Wyn Jones, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Gareth Davies, George Ford, Stuart Hogg.
Hogg is the finest full-back on these shores and adding clever little layers to his game as a Chief. Liam Williams is the ultimate high-ball specialist and offers loads on the ground. Anthony Watson has come roaring into form again. All three are Test-match animals, and both wings are exceptional under the Garryowens Faf de Klerk will, inevitably, send steepling into the skies. Rees-Zammit, one of the players of the championship, would be on the bench had I not gone for a 6-2 split.
Henshaw is an absolute, unquestionable shoo-in. The centre is a magnificent blend of guile and dynamism, barrelling runs and saw-sharp defensive reads. Against South Africa, Gatland will need ferocious specimens like him, just as likely to lance through a gap or thunder an opponent back from whence he came. North has long been pilloried in Wales for failing to produce his scintillating early-career form, but how he has found himself again this year at outside-centre. It also helps, when facing the Boks, that North is a beast of a man. Tuilagi and Jonathan Davies may yet have a say, if each can get himself motoring late in the season.
The half-backs are the trickiest positions of all to choose, not because of the plethora of jostling contenders, but for the lack of them. Ali Price had a golden opportunity to press his case for the wide-open scrum-half slot, but has not really grasped it. Rhys Webb is a class act but out of the Welsh squad and now out for the season through injury. I’ve gone for Murray, based on his streetsmarts, game-management and precious ability to make booming exit kicks. Gareth Davies can bring the spark from the bench.
At 10, the problems are similar. Russell should tour, but Scotland’s sorcerer has not done enough to make himself a Test starter. Ford has been good but not excellent over the competition. Johnny Sexton plainly still has plenty to offer but, at 35, with his injury record, starting him against South Africa’s blitz seems fraught with risk. Biggar is my pivot, a man who comes alive when the chips are down, can play as Gatland wishes, and has proven he has the attacking potency that many claim he lacks. I’ve chosen Farrell on the bench, despite a poor campaign, for his intensity, kicking game and ability to cover 10 and 12.
The front row is infinitely more competitive. Wyn Jones edges in ahead of Rory Sutherland and Mako Vunipola – his scrummaging against the Boks will be absolutely essential. Folk in West Wales have known about Jones for some time, but now he has announced himself as a fabulous international prop, a canny set-piece operator and a real nuisance over ball.
George is out of form and not starting for England, but I’d still back him to deliver. On his game, he is the best the Lions can call upon. Owens played a major role in Wales’ transformation from the autumn and is a brilliant leader.
At tighthead, Furlong has been uproariously good since returning from injury. He is a mighty scrummager and a weapon in the loose, a rhino ballerina against Scotland and a hulking bludgeon against the English. Zander Fagerson is just ahead of Sinckler for a spot on the bench.
The back five of the scrum is where things get seriously tasty. You could probably pick three sets of locks of equal strength, and about eight back-row combinations with very little between them.
Itoje is a given. He has much to learn, still, and referees are finally copped-on to his transgressions, but you can’t leave out a player of his totemic quality.
Speaking of totems, Alun Wyn Jones has made himself the outstanding candidate to lead this side. Jones is nearing the end, no doubt. The pate is balding, the lines on the face more pronounced, the brow, if it is even possible, furrowing ever tighter. Plenty thought he was done two months ago. It will be asking a lot of his body to go for three Tests on the spin, but he is thoroughly deserving of the captaincy and a berth in the engine room. A tremendous leader, relentless competitor and, often, referee charmer.
Of the rest, you could choose any of Ryan, Iain Henderson, Adam Beard and Jonny Gray. A fit-again Joe Launchbury could force his way in too. Ryan’s lineout savvy and explosiveness on both sides of the ball earn him a spot on my bench.
Faletau has been the best eligible No8 of the Six Nations. How wonderful to see him, at last, consign injuries to the past and gallop around like the Faletau of old. The Lions will need his immense carrying.
They will also need jackal threats, and plenty of them. Tipuric can do things no forward can do, and most would never bother attempting. He is also an excellent lineout option – another important point in his favour. Curry, at 22, is an England and Lions captain-in-waiting and one of few in Jones’ squad to burnish their credentials this tournament, his work with the ball beginning to match his sensational prowess on the jackal.
On current form, though, Watson pips him. Watson has been relentlessly outstanding for a Scotland team mired in its usual maddening fluctuations. He carries and tackles like a rabid beast, commits a ton of defenders, and can match what Curry does over ball. It is hard to remember him having a below-par – or even unremarkable – game for Scotland.
Beirne, arguably Ireland’s player of the tournament, is also among the replacements. Back him and Curry to come on and win crucial jackal penalties and possession in a fraught last third.
Underhill has been exceptional since returning from injury for Bath, albeit against depleted Premiership opposition. Prove his fitness, and Gatland will surely take him. CJ Stander deserves to go after a barnstorming finale to his Ireland career. Billy Vunipola is out of sorts and has no place in this side, but plenty credit in the bank with the Lions coach.
15. Stuart Hogg; 14. Liam Williams, 13. George North, 12. Robbie Henshaw, 11. Anthony Watson; 10. Dan Biggar, 9. Conor Murray; 1. Wyn Jones, 2. Jamie George, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Alun Wyn Jones (c), 6. Justin Tipuric, 7. Hamish Watson, 8. Taulupe Faletau.
Reps: Ken Owens, Rory Sutherland, Kyle Sinckler, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Tom Curry, Gareth Davies, Owen Farrell.
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