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The back-row conundrum

Will Owen

Exclusive free article from The XV

As the British and Irish Lions squad selection looms, it is a legal requirement for any rugby fan to speculate on who will make the cut.

Each year, a certain position is more hotly-contested and furiously-debated than any other. In 2017, there was much gnashing of teeth about the second-row, and the form of Joe Launchbury, who was not selected. Eight years earlier, fly-half was the berth in question, with Ronan O’Gara vs Stephen Jones continuing well into the Test series.

In 2021, the conversation is almost entirely centred on the back-row. Social media is going haywire over bodyweights, turnover stats and dominant tackles. From Six Nations player of the tournament Hamish Watson to in-form Exeter number eight Sam Simmonds, let’s examine each of Warren Gatland’s options, and review their chances of boarding the plane. Additionally, we’ll look at how they’ll fare against the monstrous Springbok back-row of Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen.

Let’s start with the English contingent:

Tom Curry

The Sale open-side is often swept aside because of his below-par form in the Six Nations. However, we saw Curry achieve his world-class highs against France at Twickenham. Knowing he is still capable of such performances may tempt Gatland to give him a go.

In the example below, he opens up a gap between ball carrier Mohamed Haouas and the latching Julien Marchand, making the hooker’s clean-out less effective and granting Curry the space to sneak in for a jackal. This won England a crucial turnover before half-time. For the likes of Du Toit, clearing him out will be a major task.

Verdict: Knowing Curry can come up with big plays such as this should be enough to get him on tour. Gatland would be silly not to take him and see if he can hit top form by the Tests.

Sam Underhill

Despite missing the Six Nations with a hip injury, Bath’s back-row bulldozer remains towards the top of the pecking order for the Lions. His physicality matches that of Du Toit, and he will make a real difference when the Lions are picking-and-going five metres from the opposition line. He may not be your typical “jackaling” seven, but the England flanker always shines on big occasions. He also has played with the likes of Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones at Ospreys, so he will have a solid understanding of how his colleagues play the game.

Verdict: Has to go on tour, and is a strong favourite to start in the Test series.

Billy Vunipola

By his own admission, big Billy wasn’t on his finest form in the Six Nations. He has subsequently had some belting performances in the Championship, scoring two tries against Bedford, however it may be too little, too late for the Saracen.

Verdict: Will not tour.

Ben Earl

Regardless of form, the Bristol Bear will be a great asset to Gatland’s team. Eddie Jones has found a role for Earl as a “finisher”, for he always brings a bullocking presence from the bench. He covers all three back-row positions, plus Jones has toyed with the idea of him playing in the backline. For Bristol, he is by no means playing badly, but we all know he is capable of more than we’ve seen in the past couple of months. Despite fans going quiet on his chances since the Six Nations, Earl is a bit of a bolter.

Verdict: May be called up on the basis of his versatility, but making the Test team will be a significant uphill climb.

Sam Simmonds

Fans have been raving about the Exeter man’s performances as of late. Despite his three-year international drought, many supporters and pundits alike have suggested that while Simmonds may not fit the bill for the England eight shirt, he could leapfrog the national set-up and take on the Springboks. It is difficult to look at Simmonds and say he isn’t good enough, but Gatland may struggle to pick a player who he hasn’t seen play internationally since 2018.

Verdict: Will not tour.

Now, let’s turn to the Irish contenders. In addition to the following players, Tadhg Beirne is a shoo-in for the second row position but could find himself playing as a flanker too.

CJ Stander

The Western Cape-born number eight has announced his retirement at the end of the season, but has kept himself available for Lions selection. Much like Curry, he’s capable of churning out man-of-the-match performances at any level. Surely a motivated retiree, returning to dominate the nation of his birth would be as good an addition as any to the squad.

Verdict: Will tour, and if he performs well he could find himself on the bench for the Tests.

Will Connors

Leinster’s Connors is the definition of a bolter: young, fearless, consistent and coachable. When he was given an opportunity in the seven shirt against Italy, he scored two tries in a stand-out performance. He is absolutely the sort of edge forward Gatland will love.

Verdict: Probably won’t tour, but if given the opportunity, Connors could shock a few people. 

Josh van der Flier

While Connors is more of an edge forward, Van der Flier typically plays more in the middle of the field. His job is to bring line speed, run good lines and take the pressure off his half-backs. On the below example, van der Flier runs a convincing line to tempt Vunipola to bite in. This allows Sexton an extra second on the ball, as well as creating a defensive disconnect.

Van der Flier is a consistent player who will perform the same role, no matter what team he is thrust into.

Verdict: Is Van der Flier good enough? Definitely. Will Gatland choose him over Tipuric, Underhill and Curry? Probably not. If he wanted an open-side to play in the middle of the field, he would probably favour Underhill for that role. Otherwise, he would probably prefer a seven who plays out wide.

Now let’s look at the chances of the largely successful Scottish flankers. Number eight Matt Fagerson also had a strong tournament, however it is unlikely that Gatland would choose him over the more experienced Taulupe Faletau, Stander and even Vunipola.

Hamish Watson

The Six Nations player of the championship has sparked lots of debate ever since the tournament concluded. Discussions began, stating that he is “too lightweight”, but he weighs only 3KG less than Siya Kolisi. There is no question that his form warrants a spot on the plane, but how is he best used? Scotland fans saw how dangerous he was off the bench against Wales in 2019 – if you were a knackered Springbok centre in the last 20 minutes of a Test match, the last thing you’d want to see is Watson’s angry Scottish mullet threatening to beat you up.

Verdict: Has to go on tour, strong favourite to sit on the bench for the Tests.

Jamie Ritchie

While Watson has hogged all the headlines, Ritchie has put in some top-drawer performances this year. He is capable of coming up with huge turnovers and rarely loses the ball in contact.

On this example, Ritchie ignores the quantity of Scottish jerseys around him and resists the temptation to put a big shot on full-back Brice Dulin. Instead, he allows Dulin to make an extra few metres to isolate him further.

By the time another French player is even in shot, Ritchie already has the ball clamped and the Scottish defenders are set, in case he doesn’t win the ball. This results is three points for Scotland.

Verdict: Ritchie definitely deserves to tour. He may not make the initial cut, but if anyone falls down injured, the Scotsman has to be the first cab off the rank.

Finally, let’s cover the Welsh hopefuls.

Josh Navidi

The Cardiff Blue has been quietly outstanding for Wales over the past couple of years. In the 2019 World Cup, Navidi nullified the impact of the mercurial David Pocock, carrying Wales to the top of the group stage and through the quarter-final. Wales lost their semi-final against South Africa after losing Navidi to injury. He may not be flashy, but he has played like an extra hooker in Wayne Pivac’s 1-3-2-2 forward system, ensuring Wales’ midfield ball is safe. He is a truly world-class Test match animal and is in the frame for a starting spot.

Verdict: A cert to tour and should start alongside Underhill in the 6 jersey.

Aaron Wainwright

Ex-football prodigy Wainwright has shone on the world stage before, producing a sumptuous performance against the Wallabies in the World Cup, as well as scoring a try in the quarter-final. That being said, it feels unlikely that Wainwright will bag himself a spot on tour unless there are a few injuries.

Verdict: Will not tour.

Justin Tipuric

Ospreys captain Tipuric has toured with the Lions twice before, but struggled to oust national skipper Sam Warburton for the seven jersey. A man with tremendous footballing prowess, breakdown ability and leadership, Tipuric could play any role from midweek captain to starting Test open-side. The most foolish thing any test rugby fan can do is claim Tipuric has looked off-colour, because he will always prove you wrong on the big stage. It looks unlikely that Gatland will mimic Rassie Erasmus and play a 6-2 split on the bench, but much like Watson, Tipuric feels like an ideal impact player.

Verdict: Will tour, perform well and potentially play a part in the latter Tests if not selected above Watson and Underhill.

Taulupe Faletau

You’d fancy Bath’s back-row combo of Underhill and Faletau to shine together at the highest level. It’s a nice addition that Faletau has a lovely off-load, fancy footwork and a solid kicking game, but truly, the reason the Welshman has to start in the Test series is his work at the back of the scrum.

It’s impossible to keep count of the amount of times Faletau has single-handedly saved Wales matches. The Lions have to be prepared for the possibility of Frans Malherbe dominating at scrum time.

This, from 2015, is possibly the most famous example of Faletau doing what he does best. England have pushed Wales back a few metres, and the number 8 has not only rescued the ball, but turned it into a strong attacking opportunity, as though the Welsh front row were dominant.

Faletau draws in George Ford, Ben Youngs, James Haskell and Jonny May all before giving the try-scoring pass, whilst off balance, to Rhys Webb.

If the Lions are going to win the series, they need someone to combat the hulking South African pack. Faletau is the most qualified man to do that.

Verdict: Has to go, has to start all three Tests unless his form drops drastically.

Overall, the Lions are spoiled for choice in the loose forwards. The Springbok pack will offer a tough fight, but Gatland’s men have to take it to them.

Verdict: The following players should make the plane.

Tom Curry, Taulupe Faletau, Josh Navidi, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill, Hamish Watson.

Ben Earl, Jamie Ritchie and Josh van der Flier will be unlucky to miss out, but still stand a great chance of playing a part later in the tour.

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