2021 Lions tour: Who Warren Gatland will pick versus who he should pick
Given the twists and turns professional rugby has been forced to take over the past twelve months or so, you could be forgiven for not getting truly excited about the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa until Warren Gatland and all the players are safe aboard the plane and on their way to Cape Town.
That said, head coach Gatland announced the rest of his coaching ticket on Tuesday to much fanfare with Gregor Townsend, Steve Tandy, Robin McBride and Neil Jenkins confirmed as assistant coaches for the tour. The combination of Gatland and Townsend on the staff should be enough to have even the most despondent Lions fan cautiously optimistic for what could be a very exciting tour.
Assuming the global pandemic plays ball and the Lions are able to board that plane, Gatland is set to take a 36-man squad to South Africa, with the reduction in size only further reinforcing the need for positional versatility amongst those players ultimately selected.
The recent Guinness Six Nations was a great gauge of form, while the Gallagher Premiership and Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup (if the latter goes ahead) will also be an important showcase for those players not already cemented in Gatland’s mind. If the Kiwi doesn’t already have 32 or 33 of his squad all but confirmed in his head by now, it would be very surprising.
Gatland and his assistants boast current or recent experience in Ireland, Scotland and Wales but with no representation from England or the Premiership, it remains to be seen if that will influence the final make-up of the Lions group. Nevertheless, we have attempted below to predict Gatland’s 36-man squad – as well as our own – and examine where and why the two squads might diverge.
Gatland's new staff have got straight down to business, identifying 57 potential picks for the likely 36-strong Lions squad https://t.co/4685z9NiO3
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 14, 2021
Gatland’s selection (7) – Mako Vunipola, Cian Healy, Wyn Jones, Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler, Zander Fagerson, Andrew Porter;
Alex Shaw’s selection (7) – Mako Vunipola, Cian Healy, Ellis Genge, Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler, Zander Fagerson, Andrew Porter.
Going with seven props in a 36-man squad means you will have to sacrifice elsewhere, but the Springboks’ World Cup final win over England – their last competitive outing – shows just what a potent weapon the scrum is in their arsenal. Having sufficient depth to rotate players and keep them fresh for the Test series will be key for Gatland.
Genge’s stock may not have soared as highly this season as it did in the previous campaign, but the loosehead brings valuable ball-carrying to the mix and has shown multiple times now with England the energy and impetus he can bring off the bench. In Porter, Gatland would have someone that can cover both sides of the scrum and although not regularly used at loosehead anymore, his ability to get training reps on both sides would be important should the Lions suffer any short-term injuries in the front row.
Owens was the form hooker in the Six Nations while George has held that accolade in the northern hemisphere for much of the last two or three years. Gatland would be comfortable with both around the set-piece while Cowan-Dickie is more consistent there than he is given credit for, not to mention bringing impressive physicality in the loose.
Another option is Ireland’s Kelleher, with the younger hooker having impressed for Leinster and on the international scene. A wildcard at this point, Barbeary missed out on a potential England debut during the Six Nations due to injury. He brings the kind of dynamism in the loose that will be needed to capitalise on any set-piece parity or advantage that the Lions get, not to mention being equally adept in the back row.
Gatland’s selection (5) – Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson;
Alex Shaw’s selection (5) – Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, George Kruis.
The trio of Itoje, Jones and Ryan would seem to pick themselves based on how they have played over the past couple of seasons. The trio bring a complementary mix of leadership, set-piece efficiency and ability in the loose.
Based on the Six Nations, Gatland will be hard-pressed to ignore the turnover machine that is Beirne while Henderson was also excellent for Ireland in Ryan’s absence. Kruis, however, should still be high on Gatland’s radar, with England’s lacklustre performances and uncustomary set-piece issues a strong indication of how much Kruis brought to the mix before his departure for Japan.
"Using the players this way is wrong"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 14, 2021
Gatland’s selection (7) – Justin Tipuric, Tom Curry, Hamish Watson, Sam Underhill, Taulupe Faletau, CJ Stander, Billy Vunipola;
Alex Shaw’s selection (6) – Justin Tipuric, Tom Curry, Hamish Watson, Sam Underhill, Taulupe Faletau, CJ Stander.
There is plenty of debate to be had in the back row, with none of the four nations lacking for options to put forward. Physically abrasive players like Jamie Ritchie, Mark Wilson and Rhys Ruddock are also worth mentioning, especially with the dominance of the jackal over the past few years seeming to subside lately.
That said, ball security is something the Boks will pride themselves on in the summer and the threat Tipuric, Curry and Watson pose would give the Lions the opportunity to hurt their hosts in transition. Combined with the physicality in the tackle that the likes of Underhill, Stander and Faletau bring, Gatland would back his side to prosper at the contact area.
The selection or non-selection of Vunipola could be a telling domino not only in the back row but also the composition of the pack in general. Sam Simmonds, anyone?
Despite his form having fluctuated a little over the past twelve months, Murray is still the most complete scrum-half at the Lions’ disposal and his array and accuracy of passing to his pack close to the ruck or coming around the corner will be invaluable in South Africa. Youngs knows how to manage a game and his selection would be just reward after missing out on the tour to New Zealand in 2017 for family reasons.
The duel between Davies and Price is an interesting one, with Davies being a man that Gatland knows well and trusts, while Price was impressive during the Six Nations and brings chemistry with a potential partner at fly-half.
First it was Exeter and now Bath have had their say over the Premiership club controversy Gatland went public with on Tuesday https://t.co/Ci8qIvwS2J
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 15, 2021
Leaving Johnny Sexton out of a potential Lions squad feels almost sacrilegious given his consistency over the past decade but with Farrell, Biggar and Russell all pushing, has the odometer just ticked a little too far for the Irishman?
Although not traditionally what you might consider a ‘Gatland fly-half’, Russell should see his chances boosted by the inclusion of Townsend on the coaching staff. Despite some issues off the pitch, the pairing have had a good amount of success on it. Russell’s ability to open up a game would be a nice contrast for the Lions to call upon should the game plan with Farrell or Biggar not be working.
Versatility is the name of the game with a smaller-than-normal squad and that is something that pushes North, who has prospered at 13 and wing, ahead of the likes of Henry Slade or Huw Jones. Henshaw was sublime during the Six Nations and Davies is one of Gatland’s most trusted lieutenants.
If Tuilagi can prove his fitness between now and the end of the season he is a hard option to ignore, even without a whole lot of competitive rugby in the past year. Slade could well be in this mix, too, should Gatland want another adept ball-player in his Lions midfield and not be content alone with the option of moving Farrell into the No12 jersey.
The decision to opt for seven props comes back to bite you in the back three – although with North able to also cover on the wing and all four options above capable of playing across the back three, there is scope to adjust for injuries. That said, it would not be surprising to see Gatland drop to six props or just carry three out-and-out midfielders, with Farrell also covering at No12.
Watson, Hogg and Williams were all in good form during the Six Nations and are players that Gatland knows and trusts. Despite not having the most impactful Six Nations, Daly also ticks that trust box for Gatland with his performances in New Zealand four years ago particularly impressive, not to mention the fact he will add a penalty threat from 60 metres at altitude.
Andy Goode finds room for just 1 England player in his Lions XV while his old @TheRugbyPod mucker Jim Hamilton voices jolting opinions regarding Owen Farrell and Alun Wyn Jones #LionsRugby
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 30, 2021