With the domestic seasons now over for the English, Irish, Scots and Welsh, and internationals on hold until the beginning of the Rugby World Cup warm-up games, what better time to delve into that most juicy of topics, picking a British and Irish Lions XV for a tour still in the distant future.
When these are often put together two or three years out from a tour they’re pretty meaningless, as there is nothing more than whispers and rumours circulating as to who the person will be that coaches and selects the side. That’s slightly different this time around, with Warren Gatland confirmed as leaving his post as Wales head coach following the RWC and the Kiwi set to complete the Lions triumvirate, having already been head coach on tours to Australia and New Zealand.
Form can change dramatically between now and the tour to South Africa in 2021, some older players will begin to decline and plenty of youngsters will put their hands up between now and then, but we have compiled what a Lions XV in 2021 would look like at this point, two years out from the side packing their bags for the Republic.
- Stuart Hogg, Scotland
A youngster in 2013 and injured during the tour in 2017, Hogg has had no luck in regards to the Lions so far in his career, despite going on two tours by the age of 24. Now 26, Hogg should be in the prime of his rugby career come the 2021 tour and if everything continues to go to plan with Scotland and he settles in well at Exeter Chiefs, the Scot should be at the top of the full-back pecking order in South Africa. Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny aren’t getting any younger and Elliot Daly has already talked about wanting to make the 13 jersey his own at Saracens next season.
- Anthony Watson, England
Watson was unfortunately inured for the majority of the 2018/19 season but it didn’t take him long after his extended absence to show for Bath the all-round game and attacking x-factor that he possesses. His job to reclaim his England jersey won’t be made any easier by the form of Jonny May and the rise of Joe Cokanasiga, both of whom will also be in Lions contention in two years’ time, but when he is at 100%, there are few players in the game, let alone the British isles, that you would opt for ahead of him. He was a test player under Gatland in 2017 and his versatility to also cover full-back is valuable on a tour like this.
- Jonathan Davies, Wales
There is no hiding the fact that Davies is one of Gatland’s favourites and has been for a long time. That said, he has never let his coach down and his performances have been as crucial to the Lions on recent tours as they have been to Wales over the last 10 years. He’ll be 33 in 2021 and the likes of Garry Ringrose, Henry Slade and Huw Jones will fancy their chances of unseating him, but it would be no surprise to see him bring his physical carrying and defensive ability to the jersey once again. With Davies’ age a slight concern, bolters could come in the forms of Ollie Lawrence or Corey Baldwin.
- Bundee Aki, Ireland
The 12 jersey is a difficult one to call, with Gatland having previously preferred physical options at second receiver, before going to a Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell 10-12 combination in New Zealand two years ago. Aki’s Ireland teammate Robbie Henshaw is in the mix, whilst Farrell could again be used in that same role, but the Connacht man would give Gatland a consistent source of getting over the gain-line in South Africa, with the Springboks unlikely to shirk away from the physical contest in the defensive line.
- Liam Williams, Wales
Jacob Stockdale and Jack Nowell are likely both heading to South Africa, although Williams’ form for both Wales and Saracens make him impossible to leave out of the prospective test XV at present time. It could be that he is in the mix for the 15 jersey, too, although a back three of him, Hogg and Watson looks about as dangerous as the Lions could put together now or in two years’ time, especially with the contrasting threats of Stockdale and Cokanasiga potentially options, too. This starting trio would also give Gatland capable full-backs and adept aerial operators across the back three.
- Owen Farrell, England
Given that Sexton will be 35 at the time of the next tour, it seems likely New Zealand was his last outing in the red of the Lions, whilst Farrell doesn’t look as if he is going anywhere soon, with the 27-year-old enjoying plenty of success at club and international level. If Gatland wants to retain that dual-playmaker axis from New Zealand, Farrell could again move out to inside centre, creating space for Finn Russell, Gareth Anscombe or potentially even Marcus Smith at fly-half. How England use Farrell following the Rugby World Cup, whether that is at 10 or 12, will have a strong bearing on this, too.
- Gareth Davies, Wales
It’s been a down season for Conor Murray, although few would rule him out from touring, and the same goes for Ben Youngs, with both capable of bringing a wealth of experience to the squad. Davies has quietly excelled this season and shown that he is much more than a scrum-half who just takes the gaps and hurts teams as a ball-carrier and a support-runner. He is a player that Gatland likes and thinks highly of, although the same can be said of Murray and Youngs, who are both two-time tourists under Gatland as head coach.
- Mako Vunipola, England
The assessment of Vunipola as the best loosehead prop in world rugby has only been further validated over the last couple of seasons. Assuming he is fit, it’s hard to see anyone else occupying this spot, even with scope for a lot to change in two years. He provides a solid platform at the set-piece and then the work he gets through in the loose, not just in terms of quantity but also quality, is arguably unmatched in world rugby. He would be a much-needed counter for the industry and impact of Malcolm Marx.
- Jamie George, England
Ken Owens will likely be on the plane if fit, Stuart McInally does very little wrong and Ryan Elias’ rise will be being closely monitored by Gatland, but George is surely the clubhouse leader at this point. Due to Dylan Hartley’s injury issues this season, George has been able to establish himself as a starter with England and has shown that all of the set-piece consistency and work rate that he brings in the loose at club level, successfully transitions over to the international game.
- Tadhg Furlong, Ireland
Where’s the competition coming from? Kyle Sinckler is almost a certainty to tour if fit, but beyond that, no one is knocking the door down right now to join the two veterans of the 2017 tour. Sinckler’s overall game has improved but it would not be surprising to see Gatland again opt for Furlong as a starter to soften teams up for 60 minutes, before unleashing the Harlequin on a tired defence. As one-two punches go, it might be the best one the 2021 Lions can lean on at any position.
- James Ryan, Ireland
A word for Alun Wyn Jones, whose omission will certainly ruffle feathers, but who is also set to be 35 at the time of the next tour. Will he be on the plane? It would take a brave person to bet against that, but will he offer as much to the test side as Ryan, with the Irishman set to be entering his prime in two years’ time? Ryan has gone from strength to strength with Leinster and Ireland and looks like a British and Irish Lion in waiting at this point.
- Maro Itoje, England
Itoje packed down in the engine room in New Zealand and very little over the last two years suggests that will change in South Africa. Like Hogg and Vunipola, he feels like a player that, if fit, is a certainty to be in the test XV. The bigger question is, following Sam Warburton’s retirement, could Itoje be in the frame to captain the invitational side? He is an effective communicator, a lightning rod for his teams and leads by example as much as he does by instruction.
- Taulupe Faletau, Wales
Injuries have plagued Faletau of late, although if fit, you suspect his name is one which Gatland would have penned in right from the word go. There is no weakness to Faletau’s game, with the Welshman influential at the contact area, as a ball-carrier, in defence and as a lineout option. In addition to those technical and physical intangibles, he is also an experienced leader and you can never have too many of them on the pitch.
- Hamish Watson, Scotland
Warburton’s retirement opens up a spot in the Lions XV that had previously not been up for competition. Watson has excelled for Scotland and Edinburgh and has shown enough consistency at international level to test Gatland’s previous reluctance to opt for too many Scottish players. Justin Tipuric and Tom Curry will be in the conversation, too, as will Dan Leavy, assuming he can make a full comeback from the knee ligament injury he suffered earlier this year.
- Billy Vunipola, England
Vunipola is still the most dominant number eight in the northern hemisphere and although France’s Jordan Joseph may soon change that, he remains ineligible for the Lions! The England back rower was denied his Lions ambitions in 2017 due to needing an operation on a shoulder injury, but if he’s fit in 2021 and maintains his level of play at club and international level, it’s difficult to see a player displacing him at this point.
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