As an injury-plagued Wales side battled valiantly to a narrow semi-final loss to South Africa, head coach Warren Gatland’s attentions won’t have solely been on the performance of his team.
The Kiwi is set to take charge of the British and Irish Lions once again in 2021, as he bids to right the wrongs of 2009 and secure a series victory over South Africa. As such, the varying performances of Wales’ fellow home nations will have been of particular interest to Gatland, as would have been the state of the Springboks.
England have flown high and are preparing for the fourth World Cup final in their history. Ireland will have been disappointed with the manner of their quarter-final exit, while Scotland will have done nothing to boost their chances of an increased representation in two years thanks to their early departure from Japan.
Weighing up current form, age in two seasons’ time and Gatland’s traditional selection tendencies, RugbyPass take a look at what a British and Irish Lions XV might look like in 19 months when the storied tourists make their trip to South Africa.
- Liam Williams (Wales)
The Welshman is currently the standout full-back in the northern hemisphere. He is in a strong position at club level with Saracens to continue enjoying success and is a player that Gatland obviously appreciates. Who knows how the World Cup semi-final may have panned out had Williams not been sidelined by injury?
Elliot Daly and Stuart Hogg obviously come into the equation, too, although Gatland has previously preferred the former as a wing. As for Hogg, his form has dipped a little of late and he will be looking to return to his own loftier standards at new club Exeter Chiefs. Ireland’s Joey Carbery could be in the conversation if utilised at full-back moving forward.
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- Anthony Watson (England)
Watson was a key part of Gatland’s Test XV in New Zealand two years ago and nothing at this World Cup would make you think that role is going to change in 2021. His security in the air, decision-making in defence and ability to make the first one or two tacklers miss in attack have all helped propel England to the final.
Gatland will have no shortage of wing options to call upon come 2021, as Jacob Stockdale and Joe Cokanasiga have both announced themselves at the senior level and shown the power they can bring to the mix. George North, who will still only be 29 at the time of the tour, is another power option and one who has Gatland’s admiration, while Darcy Graham offers a contrasting and elusive threat.
- Manu Tuilagi (England)
Touch wood, Tuilagi’s injury woes seem to be behind him and he is rapidly showing the rugby world what it has been missing out on for the last five or six years during his absence. He will be 30 in 2021 and providing he hasn’t lost his speed or incisive instincts, he currently looks like the pick of Gatland’s options at outside centre.
Tuilagi’s England colleagues Jonathan Joseph and Henry Slade could both be in the mix, as could Ireland’s Garry Ringrose. Owen Watkin is a player whose role is growing with Wales and would add another power carrying option, while Ollie Lawrence could put himself on the radar this season.
- Owen Farrell (England)
Moving Farrell to 12 and playing him outside of Jonny Sexton was one of the major swings in momentum in New Zealand two years ago. He continues to impress in that role for England and barring a shortage of fly-halves in 2021, it could be the position he mans once again for the Lions, potentially even as captain.
Bundee Aki represents a different sort of threat, while Gatland is well acquainted with the talents boasted by Robbie Henshaw and Hadleigh Parkes. Two young guns to keep an eye could be Cameron Redpath and Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, both of whom could throw their hats into the mix with a solid season or two.
- Jordan Larmour (Ireland)
The incisive Irishman didn’t have the most dominant World Cup, but he is a gifted player whose star promises to rise higher in the coming years. Like Watson, he offers the top-end speed and elusiveness that is coveted and it would not be surprising to see him catch up with the veteran wing defensively and in the air over the next season or two.
England’s array of wing options continue to stand out and both Jonny May and Jack Nowell could tour, as could Josh Adams, another man that Gatland knows well from his time with Wales. One wildcard could be James Lowe, with the Kiwi set to qualify for Ireland on residency next year.
Twelve years on from the 2007 final in Paris that England lost to South Africa, winger Mark Cueto still insists his disallowed try was a legitimate scorehttps://t.co/DTBv2NpgGl
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 29, 2019
- Gareth Anscombe (Wales)
Unfortunately, Anscombe’s World Cup was wiped out before it began thanks to an injury in the warm-up games. He had added another dimension to Wales over the last season or two and the prospect of him and Farrell working in tandem is an exciting one. Crucially, he is a player that Gatland trusts.
George Ford has probably been the pick of the fly-halves at the World Cup, although he wasn’t a man that Gatland seemed too enamoured with back in 2017. The same description could also be extended to Finn Russell, opening the door for Dan Biggar to come in alongside his Wales team-mate. Don’t rule out Marcus Smith, either.
- Gareth Davies (Wales)
Keeping together the Welsh half-backs certainly wouldn’t hinder the Lions in their bid for chemistry and Davies, at 31 in 2021, should still have some tread left on the tyres. That said, scrum-half is going to be a position of considerable transition among at least three of the four nations, so there is plenty of scope for this one to pan out quite differently.
Ben Youngs and Conor Murray would offer veteran options and have both been there and done it for Gatland, while Ali Price’s career trajectory is ascending currently. This position has all the hallmarks for a fast-rising youngster, such as Scotland’s Jamie Dobie, to make a charge at a spot in the touring squad, if not the starting XV.
- Mako Vunipola (England)
Does anyone look ready to displace the ultra-versatile loosehead? He offers so much in so many different areas that it’s hard to see someone jumping ahead of him over the next year and a half. He may look the grizzled veteran, but at 28 years of age, he definitely has another Lions tour in him and probably another World Cup.
Ellis Genge and Rhys Carre may offer the stiffest competition if both continue to improve at their current rate of knots. Age may well have caught up with Cian Healy by that point in time and Joe Marler’s international future is up in the air, with the loosehead having come out of Test retirement for this World Cup.
- Jamie George (England)
This is a fairly straightforward pick on current form. George has shown himself to be one of the most consistent set-piece hookers in the game and his involvements in the loose, from rucking to carries in the wide channels, are extremely influential for England. Alongside Vunipola, George would give Gatland a front row very capable of outworking their Springbok opposite numbers.
Stuart McInally should be one of the Scots really pressing for selection, while Niall Scannell will likely have a season and a half of work for Munster and Ireland to stake his case. Luke Cowan-Dickie’s claim won’t be helped if he is still sitting behind George in England’s pecking order, and young Wasps tyro Alfie Barbeary is an interesting wildcard.
— Sam Roberts (@samrobertsrugby) October 28, 2019
- Kyle Sinckler (England)
Tighthead prop looks to be an area of particular strength for the Lions and no one is currently playing at the same level as Sinckler. His scrummaging has come on leaps and bounds since he toured New Zealand in 2017 and he arguably holds the accolade of the best playmaking prop in the international game. He has done what seemed unthinkable in 2017 and that is not only close the gap on Tadhg Furlong, but catch him.
The Irishman should, of course, be on the plane. He could be joined by Scotland’s Zander Fagerson, who is WP Nel’s natural successor. Andrew Porter will likely be in the mix, although that could also be at loosehead should Ireland and Leinster opt to move him back to his original position as a number of the nation’s looseheads move deeper into their 30s.
- Maro Itoje (England)
He doesn’t wear the captain’s armband for England, but he is every bit the leader by example that Farrell is. If the southern hemisphere were still to be won over by Itoje’s game-changing ability, that has surely been remedied at this World Cup with the lock already being heavily talked up as a potential World Rugby player of the year award winner later this year.
Adam Beard and Iain Henderson both have strong claims at a position that looks to be even more competitive than it was in 2017 and that is saying something. Joe Launchbury missed out then and could do so again in 2021 although he remains a considerable option. The younger Saracens locks of Nick Isiekwe and Joel Kpoku will be putting down their own markers.
- James Ryan (Ireland)
One of Ireland’s better performers over the last few weeks and someone who is in the mix to captain their side following Rory Best’s retirement. His combination with Itoje is one that everyone would be excited to see as he would bring his carrying ability to bear alongside Itoje’s defensive work at the lineout and contact area. On paper, it gels nicely.
Alun Wyn Jones will be 35 at the time of the tour. Too old to feature? No. Too old to start the Tests? It’s impossible to rule out, but with two such promising talents as Itoje and Ryan there, it’s hard to see. Courtney Lawes is another player who Gatland seems to admire, while George Kruis and Jonny Gray would be more than reliable options.
- Tom Curry (England)
This is a harder pick than Curry’s sublime recent form suggests. As one half of the ‘Kamikaze Twins’, he has shone for England in their mobile pack. That said, it is not a tactic that Gatland has always opted for in his own teams and there are a number of other candidates who might prosper slightly more in the traditional blindside role.
Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony has another tour in him and was briefly given the captaincy two years ago in New Zealand. Wales’ Aaron Wainwright hasn’t been far off Curry at this World Cup and has Gatland’s favour, while Ross Moriarty is another to have the support of the Kiwi. In a heavier pack, budding back rowers Ted Hill and Alex Dombrandt could also come into their own.
The power of social media… Ben Curry has his say after online campaign convinces Sale to let him skip a Premiership match so he can see twin Tom play for England in the World Cup final https://t.co/2DBHiJi8oy
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 29, 2019
- Sam Underhill (England)
Having gone for Curry at six, we have to complete the flanks with the selection of Underhill. He has been the form openside at the World Cup and if he and Curry both perform against South Africa in next Saturday’s final, that is only going to make them more appealing to Gatland in 2021. You don’t mess with a winning formula.
If Dan Leavy can get back to full fitness after his horror run of injuries, he would be a candidate to run Underhill all the way for the spot, as could Jamie Ritchie, who was one of the bright spots for Scotland out in Japan. Lewis Ludlam offers versatility, while Justin Tipuric is not done just yet and is the epitome of a player that Gatland rates and trusts.
- Billy Vunipola (England)
Vunipola has had a solid World Cup without reaching his full ability, but given the current state of No 8s in the northern hemisphere, he looks to be the clear choice to take on the Springboks. He missed his Lions opportunity two years ago due to withdrawing himself from the squad and opting for surgery to correct an injury.
Similar to Leavy, if Taulupe Faletau can get himself back to his best, he could be in the mix to take this spot, while Josh Navidi could feature somewhere in the back row. Jack Conan and CJ Stander are candidates from Ireland, but Caelan Doris could yet surpass them both if the youngster is given a sustained run at international level.
WATCH: England’s Billy Vunipola talks to the media ahead of the World Cup final
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