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Which locks should start for the Lions Tests?

Will Owen

With the Herculean Alun Wyn Jones making a miraculous three-week recovery from a dislocated shoulder, the tour captain has flown out to South Africa to help bolster the Lions’ chances of achieving a seismic Test series win over the Springboks. Head coach Warren Gatland has prepared to have a conversation with both Jones and stand-in skipper Conor Murray about where the captaincy will go and how best to prepare for the first Test.

This decision does not simply come down to choosing the best captain. There are several factors at play here: does Gatland want a captain who has been present all tour? Does Ali Price warrant selection over Murray as the starting scrum-half? Is the 157-cap Welsh wonder fit enough to play 80 minutes?

The latter question may sound problematic, but it is not. Aside from Jones and converted back-row Tadhg Beirne, the Lions have brought five fully-fledged locks on tour with them: Adam Beard, Iain Henderson, Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes. All of these players could feasibly start the first Test – so let’s assess what each of them brings, and which would be the best combination for Gatland’s side to beat the Springboks.

Courtney Lawes
Courtney Lawes provides power on both sides of the ball (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Jonny Hill

While he hasn’t shone in the same way as the likes of Itoje, don’t write off Hill just yet. A powerful lock and solid distributor, Hill is an excellent ‘system’ lock, who Gatland could definitely find a use for.

Against South Africa A, the Lions regularly employed a strategy of three-man pick-and-drives towards the line… if that’s an indication of how Gatland will play the Tests, Hill could be in for a shock promotion.

In the early warm-up matches, we haven’t seen Hill’s strengths fully utilised. He has been strong at the set-piece and breakdown, as well as giving a try-scoring offload to Josh Adams against the Sigma Lions, but the Exeter brute is best used near the tryline.

Against South Africa A, the Lions regularly employed a strategy of three-man pick-and-drives towards the line – a staple of Rob Baxter’s Exeter. Unfortunately, Hill did not feature in this match, but if that’s an indication of how Gatland will play the Tests, Hill could be in for a shock promotion.

Main selling point: Good scrummager and lineout forward, excellent on both sides of a pick-and-go.

Prediction: It would be a bold call to start Hill, and it feels unlikely at this moment. That said, if Hill does play in the Test series, he would certainly take it to the Boks.

Courtney Lawes

Courtney Lawes is a player Gatland certainly respects. Having only played 87 minutes in this year’s Six Nations, Lawes was always going to have to be outstanding on tour to make the Test side. After a storming tour in 2017 (including two belting Test cameos off the bench), there is an argument that Lawes was picked on reputation, and rightfully so.

Above all, Lawes loves to hit a half-back – and South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk is every second row’s dream target.

In a similar mould to Beirne, Lawes started at No6 against the Sigma Lions, but still functions primarily as a lock. He has carried brilliantly on tour so far and rarely misses a tackle. Above all, Lawes loves to hit a half-back – and South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk is every second row’s dream target. There is no doubting Gatland is a fan of Lawes’, but may favour his England compatriot Itoje.

Main selling points: Fantastic carrier and a dominant tackler.

Prediction: It feels like an uphill climb for Lawes to make the Test team at this point. But if he’s the sixth best lock on tour, that’s a great problem to have.

Iain Henderson

No matter what level of rugby you’re playing at, or where you are in the world, there’s about a 60 per cent chance Iain Henderson will steal your next lineout. Henderson has arguably been the most consistent forward on tour – a steady set-piece operator, strong carrier and smart leader, the Ulsterman ticks all the boxes for a great Test lock.

After captaining the Lions through a hectic date with the Cell C Sharks, Henderson showed the maturity of any great Lion. Whether or not he makes the team for the first Test, he will be assisting his competitors in any way possible.

Let’s take a quick look at what Henderson brings at set-piece time. This example comes from the Lions’ opening fixture against Japan.

Henderson calls the lineout to himself and, on descent, presents the ball clearly for his insert, Taulupe Faletau. He spreads his body as evenly as possible to prevent contesting jumper Michael Leitch from getting anywhere near the ball.

As the maul begins to move forward, Leitch attempts to swim up the middle and jostle with ball-carrier Ken Owens. On the above screenshot, you can see Henderson using his right arm to trap Leitch’s hand and keep it as far away from the ball as possible.

Henderson then angles his body to the left, meaning he is on the outside shoulder of the Japanese fringe defenders. This results in centre Ryoto Nakamura having to join the maul, with his partner Timothy Lafaele covering both scrum-half Conor Murray and hit runner Robbie Henshaw.

With multiple bodies tangled around Henderson, Murray frees the ball up and passes Henshaw, who crashes through Lafaele and over the tryline.

Main selling points: The best all-rounder. Soft hands, consistent lineout caller, good at rucks and mauls.

Prediction: Was definitely the frontrunner to start before Beard’s cameo against South Africa A. If he doesn’t start the first Test, I certainly wouldn’t bet against him playing a big role in either the second or third Tests.

Maro Itoje

Itoje is far from a flawless player. He may be susceptible to getting wound up and giving away needless penalties from time to time, but he is equally capable of rising to the standards and intensity of a Lions Test match. After playing all three Test matches in 2017 (starting in the win and draw), Gatland will have a lot of faith in Itoje to give his team the best chance of winning.

Let’s have a quick look at Itoje’s quality around the fringes of the breakdown.

After a couple of South Africa A forwards fall to the side of the breakdown, Itoje sees an opportunity to poach the ball. He has a pretty good path to the ball, but referee Jaco Peyper tells him to leave it.

Itoje immediately leaves the breakdown and works into the right guard position, targeting the left foot of De Klerk. Itoje’s right foot is in front of the hindmost point of the ruck but because he has just retreated from a breakdown contest, he forges the illusion of being onside to Peyper.

Itoje leaps almost horizontally to ensure he gets a hand to the ball as De Klerk kicks it. On this occasion, he doesn’t fully charge it down, however he softens the flight of the ball and makes it an easier catch for Anthony Watson.

This is an example of Itoje famously playing ‘on the edge’. If he can continue to pressurise De Klerk’s left foot, a charge-down could well be the difference between a good exit and seven points.

Main selling points: Monumental at charge-downs, extra breakdown threat, and above all, Itoje is always mega physical.

Prediction: Despite his flaws, it’s hard to see beyond Itoje starting. Whether it’s for his experience of the 2017 tour, his impressive second half against South Africa A or his contrast with potential partners Henderson, Beard and Jones, Itoje is a frontrunner to start all three Tests.

Adam Beard

After throwing England prop Alex Corbisiero in the deep end in the 2013 series against Australia, Gatland made it clear that he’s not afraid to pick late call-ups in the Tests. Proving to Gatland that he should have picked you in the first place is just as valuable as playing well for a full tour. While Beard isn’t as flashy as Itoje, he has quietly silenced his doubters in his Lions appearances so far.

With an excellent cameo off the bench against South Africa A, he could provide Gatland the perfect combination with Itoje in a Test match – whether off the bench or from the first minute.

Much like Itoje with his charge-downs, Beard has a clear USP in the tight: his maul defence. The following example is from the South Africa A match, in which Beard was freshly on to the field.

South Africa A are awarded a lineout 10 metres out from the Lions goal-line. Eben Etzebeth catches the ball and Beard takes the initial sting out of the drive by taking three steps forward.

Beard reaches his right arm over the top of Etzebeth and worms his body into the gap behind the Springbok lock.

Beard then manages to bind on to ball-carrier Malcolm Marx, ejecting him from the maul. This means the Lions merely have to prevent a ball presentation by any means possible. Beard, Itoje and Tom Curry all lie on top of the ball to ensure their team a scrum put-in.

Main selling points: World-class maul defence and a solid lineout operator.

Prediction: Beard offers something different to the other locks on tour. His maul defence will surely play a part in this series, even if it’s later on in matches.

Alun Wyn Jones

The biggest dilemma is what to do with the hulking, world-class leader with more caps than any other player in rugby history. His ability and leadership need no introduction, but we’re yet to see his fitness levels. With Jones set to play against the Stormers from the bench, Gatland will get a good idea of where he’s at physically.

Main selling points: Captaincy, rucking, ball-carrying. What can’t this man do?

Prediction: He may appear to be superhuman but he did dislocate his shoulder only a month ago. He may find himself sitting on the bench for the first Test, then taking the No5 jersey with the captaincy for the second and third Tests.

If he’s fit to play, Jones is too good to leave out of the matchday 23. It feels harsh on the likes of Hill, who have been there all tour, but Jones’ influence is unmatched. In the 2017 series, Sam Warburton’s fitness was questioned but he proved he was more than capable in the second and third Tests.

Final prediction: Maro Itoje to start the first Test alongside Adam Beard, who may not have played as consistently well as Henderson but has proven he’s the only man to kill the Boks’ driving maul at source. Jones to take Beard’s place in the second Test alongside Itoje, with the potential of Henderson coming off the bench at some point.

South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus famously played a 6-2 bench split in the 2019 World Cup final against England, giving him the opportunity to bring on the world-class RG Snyman and Franco Mostert in the boiler room. Depending on which fly-halves are fit, whether Owen Farrell starts in the centre and whether the versatile Elliot Daly is playing, Gatland may also consider doubling up on replacement locks.

More Lions analysis from Will Owen

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