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'It's going to be brutal at times': The chastening 2009 tour lesson that influenced Lions selection of Jonny Hill

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by PA)

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It was a surprise when the name of Jonny Hill was read out by Lions chairman Justin Leonard at Thursday’s 2021 squad announcement. The soon-to-be 27-year-old is a Test level rookie, a nine-cap second row who only made his international debut for England last October.


All the chat about the Lions for months on end had been about how Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje and James Ryan were the locks who would blaze the trail and be right in the thick of it when Warren Gatland’s team goes toe-to-toe with the Springboks in July. 

However, too many people read the room wrong. Whereas Welsh veteran Jones will travel as skipper following a stellar Guinness Six Nations, the form of the other two alleged second row squad shoo-ins wasn’t where it needed to be. 

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The crazy reaction on the RugbyPass Fanzone to the 2021 Lions squad announcement
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The crazy reaction on the RugbyPass Fanzone to the 2021 Lions squad announcement

Itoje had sufficient credit in the bank to ensure selection but Ryan didn’t and he paid a heavy price when the 37-strong squad was unveiled. Gatland included a half-dozen second rows other than the much touted Ryan, a contingent where a number of them can capably play at blindside as well.  

Rather than Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson were the Irishman to make the cut, while there was also allowance made for Courtney Lawes to make it back in time from his England injury. It was the Hill selection that piqued most engine room interest, though, and Gatland used a query about why the Exeter player was chosen to reopen a wound that has festered since the Lions last toured South Africa in 2009 and lost the Test series 2-1.     

“He is a young player we think can keep improving and put the other second rows under pressure,” said Gatland about the bruising physicality Hill goes about his business with. “He is a big man and what pleased me was you wouldn’t have thought he had a brilliant Six Nations but he has gone back to Exeter and played some really good rugby. 


“I thought Exeter and in particular him against Bristol was outstanding. We have had a look at that. If you look at our second rows we have tried to get a balance between matching what South Africa bring to that department and we have got to have the ability to bring that physicality. 

“It’s something we learned in 2009 that not having played the South Africans in the lead-up games – and it is going to happen on this tour as well with the Test players – we went in thinking we were in better shape than we were. All of a sudden you come up against the Test players and what surprised us was we weren’t prepared for the physicality or picked a side that didn’t quite interpret that. 

“South Africa have gone back to their DNA. Looking at them in the (2019) World Cup and looking at the documentary they made, it shows you what their mentality is and it’s about being physical and winning that physical battle. So we want to play some good rugby but at times we are going to have to roll our sleeves up, get in the trenches and battle it out with them because it is going to be tough and it is going to be brutal at times.”



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