The waiting game
Dan Biggar feels he can do no more to put himself in position for a second Lions call-up on Thursday
07th May 2021
07th May 2021
Warren Gatland is known for dropping selection bombs and the 2021 Lions squad announcement was no different. Once Jason Leonard mouthed the words, ‘Bundee Aki’, rugby cognoscenti and fans alike knew they were in for a ride for the next two minutes and 21 seconds. Scots rejoiced, fans from all nations naturally raged, but as Hamish Watson, the final name was read out, a collective calm saw the numerically minded folk work out selectorial equilibrium among the home nations; eleven English, 10 Welsh, and eight Scottish and Irish players.
What is important to note is that this 37-man squad is only the beginning. Sadly, history tell us, that rugby by its very nature is a collision sport, so there will be injuries and dreams dashed. The crestfallen George North – a certain tourist – and Joe Launchbury prove that. For those so agonisingly close to selection, this is not the time for a fit of pique, it is the time to double-down as the season reaches its climax. Indeed, to prove one’s character and stay in condition. Pina coladas in foreign climes can wait.
Assessing the squad is a fool’s errand but it is instructive to assess Gatland’s thinking, so chocks away.
Louis Rees-Zammit must think Test rugby is a cinch. Just seven months after making his international debut, the 20-year-old Cardiffian has waltzed into the squad with ease. His USP is blistering pace, something that cannot be coached. Duhan van der Merwe, too, has barely been playing Test rugby for a season, yet his raw strength was enough to see him selected over Jonny May and Jack Nowell, who had missed so much of the season through injury.
There were so surprises over the trio of tourists from 2017. Liam Williams and Anthony Watson are multi-faceted players who can play anywhere in the back three, are both brilliant under the high-ball and boast attacking verve and defensive steel. Stuart Hogg, may be perceived as fallible in defence but he is irresistible in attack and has made more metres than any other player in the Six Nations. He also boasts a howitzer of a right boot and is your perfect counter-attacking 15.
The final back-three player is Josh Adams, who has plundered 17 tries in his 32 Tests. Adams is picked as much for his aggressive defence as for his finishing ability.
Next on the plane: Jonny May, Jack Nowell, Jacob Stockdale
The make-up of the Lions midfield was something of a head-scratcher for Gatland and his coaches. With North out, there was a requirement for a big, defensively sound 13 and Chris Harris, at 6ft 3in and over 16st fitted the bill. The biggest surprise came with the selection of Bundee Aki. When the New Zealander left the field for Ireland with a red card against England, the Lions would have been the last thing on his mind, but with Manu Tuilagi not yet back from injury, the immensely abrasive Connacht centre has been selected for his route-one approach and ability to offload out of contact.
The inclusion of Elliot Daly, potentially came at the expense of Jonathan Davies. The two-time Lion was not deemed to be at the peak of his physical powers and Daly, despite his poor form playing at full-back, a position that clearly didn’t suit him, boasts versatility in the outside channels and that famed, siege-gun boot at altitude. For Aki’s old provincial team-mate, Robbie Henshaw, there would have been no reason to worry. The centre has been in sublime form for Leinster and Ireland and his footwork, power and reading of the game means he will be pencilled in for a place in the Test line-up, barring a loss of form.
One nagging doubt is creativity in midfield. With Henry Slade and Garry Ringrose omitted, the question remains whether the Lions have the guile to find space rather than take contact.
That leaves us with Owen Farrell, who will be touring for a third time. The England captain, has not had a vintage year. His goal-kicking went through an iffy patch, his club side were relegated and his country endured a poor Six Nations, yet his class and mental toughness cannot be questioned. In truth, Gatland had no qualms about selecting him.
Next on the plane: Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Jonathan Davies
Fly-half is a position of real strength for the Lions. That they could afford to leave to Johnny Sexton at home proves that. The Ireland pivot has not been grounded due to a lack of talent, let us be clear about that, but for a concern over the soon-to-be 36 year-old’s durability. The Dubliner has been bashed about, and unable to string a consistent run of games together, despite his authority when he does play, notably against England and Scotland in the Six Nation.
The mercurial Finn Russell, a neutral’s favourite has been added to the Lions brew to add a little joie de vivre to proceedings. Front-runner for the 10 shirt right now must be Dan Biggar, who was the form 10 in the Six Nations and boasts the physical robustness Sexton once had. His brilliance in the skies of South Africa and defensive zeal may see him in a selection battle with Owen Farrell by the Test Series. Inside him, the picture is pretty straightforward. Expect Conor Murray to start Tests and Gareth Davies to finish them. Murray is not the running threat he once was, but his game-management and precision box-kicking remain peerless, while Davies, who has not been been in patchy form is lucky to tour. The Scarlet does retain match-winning abilities with his explosive pace.
With Ben Youngs’ withdrawal, Ali Price has the chance to break up that duo and force himself into the Test 23, but he has ground to make up.
Next on the plane: Johnny Sexton, George Ford, Tomos Williams
The ‘Sam Simmonds for the Lions’ collective would have been jumping for joy when his name was called out. It was a collective poke in the eye for Eddie Jones’ stubbornness not to pick the Exeter Chief who has been so impressive in the Premiership for nigh on two years. He will face a seismic battle for a Test place Taulupe Faletau, will embark on his third tour, and will be favourite for the No 8 berth. The Tongan-born backrow never courts his own publicity and is the ultimate team-player. If Simmonds is in peerless form on a hard track, he would have no issue with moving over to No 6, as he has done for Zach Mercer if it’s for the betterment of the team.
Jack Conan is the outsider for a Test start. His rise to prominence, notably against Exeter in the Champions Cup quarter-final, has come at the expense of Billy Vunipola and his countryman, CJ Stander. Indeed, the former must worry he may never wear a Lions shirt. Injury and a loss of form in the last 12 months has dented his legacy.
At blindside, the thinking is clear. The hybrid lock-cum-6 is in vogue in order to combat the 6ft 7in Pieter Steph du Toit, who has himself just returned from injury. Courtney Lawes and Tadhg Beirne can both be lifted at the tail and are quick across the turf. In Lawes’ ledger, he performs explosive bone-rattlers, while Beirne possesses innate jackal ability and soft hands. Elsewhere, at 22, Tom Curry was always certainty, and his ability to play across all back three positions probably saw the unfortunate Josh Navidi omitted. Hamish Watson, as the Six Nations player of the tournament, was a popular choice, and his ability to skittle players with bigger dimensions could become a factor in inspiring the tourists.
Finally, another quiet man, Justin Tipuric. Embarking on his third tour, the Trebanos-born openside is the strongest link-man at Gatland’s disposal. His offensive skills are well-documented; footballing skills, jackaling ability and support lines are top-class but it’s his defensive work that is, perhaps, strangely underrated. With an ability to hold up tacklers and a stubbornness not to miss one – he’s made 107 tackles in a Lions jersey and not missed one – a relatively lightweight frame shouldn’t overlook his effectiveness.
Next on the plane: Sam Underhill, Josh Navidi, CJ Stander
The three out-and-out second rows are Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje and Jonny Hill. We know Itoje can play at 6, but there are better alternatives in Lawes and Beirne. The Lions engine room from 2017 will remain in-tact and what they give away in inches to the likes of RG Snyman, Lood-de-Jager and Eben Etzebeth, they make up for in athleticism and battle-worn nous. Neither player will be bullied by the Springbok locks.
Jonny Hill isn’t as much of a surprise as many are pointing out. For many, he’s seen as a rabble-rousing Exeter miscreant who spoils mauls, hits rucks and gives away too many penalties, but he has subtleties to his game. Comfortable with the ball in hand, he can take the ball in midfield comfortably and his spiral kick against Bristol showed the soft touches and confidence he has to be more than a grunt and shunt merchant.
Lawes and Beirne are both accomplished locks but they remain outside bets for starting berths in the Test team.
Next on the plane: James Ryan, Jonny Gray, Adam Beard
The tighthead is arguably the most important position on the pitch. Tadhg Furlong will surely be picked to anchor the Lions scrum. His stand-in, for much of the past year, while he’s been out has been Andrew Porter. Heavily tattooed and built like a powerlifter, Porter would be an able deputy. After converting to tighthead from loosehead in his early twenties, you’d imagine the Leinster-man, could, at a push, fill in there. Zander Fagerson, like Bundee Aki, must have thought his Lions hopes had gone awry when the red card was brandished for striking Wyn Jones’ head with his shoulder but he will line-up with the Welshman having been preferred to the heavily fancied Kyle Sinckler. The line coming out of the Lions camp was that scrummaging tighthead’s were preferred to all-court No 3s and the Bristol player must wait for his chance.
Over at the loosehead, Mako Vunipola is just one of five players to embark on his third tour (joining Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Owen Farrell and Alun Wyn Jones, who makes his fourth trip). His ability in the loose and workrate are highly valued by Gatland and he will battle it out with Wyn Jones for the No 1 shirt. The Llandovery farmer is a formidable scrummager and has a knack of latching onto the ball on the deck, while with his squat frame, he is rarely stopped in his tracks. Rory Sutherland will aim to splice that duo to force his way into the Test 23.
There are probably fewest surprises at hooker, Ken Owens and Jamie George reprise their partnership from 2017, while the physical busts of Luke Cowan-Dickie in the tight will warrant close scrutiny from the Boks. On form, Owens is a nose ahead of George who has been match-light this season. A position of strength for the Lions.
Next on the plane: Kyle Sinckler, Tomas Francis, Joe Marler, Rónan Kelleher
Possible test 23 First Test; Springboks v Lions:
Stuart Hogg, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Conor Murray; Taulupe Faletau, Tom Curry, Tadhg Beirne, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Maro Itoje, Tadhg Furlong, Ken Owens, Mako Vunipola
Reps: Jamie George, Andrew Porter, Wyn Jones, Courtney Lawes, Justin Tipuric, Gareth Davies, Finn Russell, Owen Farrell
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