In just over a year’s time, the pride of British and Irish rugby will be boarding a plane and heading to South Africa to test themselves against the reigning world champions, the Springboks, giving potential bolters a looming deadline to make the Lions.
The British and Irish Lions, under the guidance of Warren Gatland, will be pit against the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls, as well as a South Africa invitational side and the South Africa A side, before taking on the Springboks in Cape Town and twice in Johannesburg.
South Africa remains the most recent destination that the Lions tasted defeat, with the touring side have emerged triumphant in Australia in 2013 and tied the series with New Zealand in 2017. If Gatland could lead the Lions to success on the African continent next year, he would cement himself as arguably the greatest coach the Lions have ever had, having successfully presided over those past two tours.
Gatland will undoubtedly lean heavily on the players he knows well and trusts from Wales, a potential core of the England side that made it to the Rugby World Cup final last year and a number of standouts from both Ireland and Scotland. There is unlikely to be too much experimentation with untested players at the international level, though there is always the potential for a bolter or two anytime the Lions assemble.
We have taken a look at some of the candidates from the British Isles who could be in the mix for one of these spots and what they would bring to the group in South Africa. For the purposes of this shortlist, only players who are yet to be capped at Test level were considered.
Ollie Lawrence, Worcester Warriors and England
Centres that can get over the gain-line are worth their weight in gold and Lawrence can do it through his speed or his power. Off of slower ball he is able to generate enough acceleration to get over the gain-line as a direct runner, whilst off quicker ball he is often able to stand up his defender and beat them on the outside. He can tailor his game to the situation and would perhaps add some of the midfield incision that England missed when they played the Springboks in Japan last year.
The Lions will need a way to expose the defensively consistent Lukhanyo Am and the box of tricks that Lawrence brings to the mix could be a potential solution for that. The hard surfaces of Johannesburg are only going to bring the best out of Lawrence’s footwork, too, much as they would for an outside the box suggestion like Bristol Bears’ Harry Thacker or Northampton Saints’ Fraser Dingwall.
Taine Basham, Dragons and Wales
Gatland loves a Welsh back rower and Basham is the latest in a long, long line of very gifted and skilled loose forwards that have emerged in Wales over the past decade. The Scarlets’ Jac Morgan is another to keep an eye on, although for now Basham is arguably the leading light in terms of uncapped back rows in the country. Sam Warburton and Seán O’Brien have been stalwarts for Gatland previously and retirement and age respectively are potentially creating opportunities for new faces in the back row.
Basham has been excelling for the slowly-but-surely improving Dragons and he has not looked out of place alongside back rowers such as Ross Moriarty, Aaron Wainwright and Ollie Griffiths. Opportunities for bolters at this position will probably hinge on how enamoured or not Gatland is with England’s ‘Kamikaze Kids’ pairing of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill.
James Lowe, Leinster and Ireland
If Lowe can make the same impact for Ireland that he has had with Leinster, the former Chief should be right in the mix for a spot in Gatland’s touring squad. He will qualify for Ireland later this year on residency and will be eligible to play in the nation’s November internationals, should they take place, as well as next season’s Guinness Six Nations.
From his instincts for space and the try line to his work rate and energy in defence, Lowe has been an integral part of Leinster’s successes in recent seasons and once he becomes Irish-qualified, that will only increase outside of international windows, when he will no longer be classed as a foreign player. Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune could provide some competition, too, with the 22-year-old the kind of long, aerially-adept wing who could prosper in a series which will likely feature plenty of tactical kicking and aerial contests.
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Ruan Ackermann, Gloucester and England
Like Lowe, Ackermann qualifies for a new nation later this year and the familiarity he has with South Africa could see him add plenty of value to the group. His performances for Gloucester have been consistent and impressive and, despite his father’s departure as head coach, the loose forward is committed to staying at Kingsholm and qualifying for England in August.
He’d face competition from other English bolter options such as Jack Willis and Ben Curry, although it could be that exposure to South African rugby and playing at altitude which gives him the edge over his rivals when it comes to Gatland nailing down his final touring squad. If he were to feature for England before that, it would only further enhance his chances of making the cut.
Stafford McDowall, Glasgow Warriors and Scotland
This was largely a competition between McDowall and Luke Crosbie, with Scotland’s smaller professional player pool, relative to their Lions rivals, ensuring that players are often swiftly capped after making their breakthrough in the club game. The plethora of back rows that Gatland has to call upon will make it difficult for Crosbie to break into the mix, but McDowall certainly brings a physicality that the Kiwi will value in the midfield.
If McDowall can hit the ground running with Glasgow if or when the 2019/20 season resumes and makes a flying start to the next campaign, he could well force his way into contention with Scotland and then catch Gatland’s eye. The Lions are not blessed with too many physical options at inside centre, should Gatland want to move away from the dual-playmaker axis he has also favoured at times. Glasgow’s Jamie Dobie may well be a future Lion, though it would seem this tour is going to come a year or two too soon for the talented scrum-half.
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Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, Ospreys and Wales
Similar to McDowall, there is arguably more of an opening for a skilled and physical centre in Gatland’s 2021 plans than there is at a number of other positions. The former age-grade standout has impressed in an Ospreys side that have looked dreadful at times over the past 18 months and he has grown both physically and as a ball-player.
With Hadleigh Parkes departing Wales this year, there is also an opening with the national team, something that Thomas-Wheeler would likely have to take later this year or in the 2021 Six Nations if he were to make it on the plane to South Africa. His biggest strength would be his ability to complement multiple fly-halves and outside centres, with the young centre able to carry and facilitate others in equally adept fashion. It’s an outside shout given the physical demands on front rowers these days but it will be worth keeping an eye on former Wales U20 captain Dewi Lake at the Ospreys, too, who could begin to take hold of the starting hooker spot there later this year.
Craig Casey, Munster and Ireland
Turnover in the scrum-half department is seemingly inevitable for the Lions, who have leant heavily on Conor Murray and Ben Youngs in recent tours, both of whom are now in their 30’s. Casey’s case is not helped by the fact he needs to bypass Murray at both provincial and international levels over the next 12 months, though that is a mark of his talent that his name is in this conversation.
He has the full toolkit for a scrum-half with a sharp and accurate pass, good box-kicking and a turn of pace to exploit any holes that appear around the fringes. A strong season with Munster and a potential debut for Ireland could force Gatland’s hand into taking an energetic and bright prospect like Casey, although there are multiple veteran Welsh options at the position that stand in his way. Elsewhere in Ireland, openside Scott Penny may fancy his chances, whilst the depth of options at lock and fly-half make it an unenviable journey for the duo of Ryan Baird and Harry Byrne.
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Ben Loader, London Irish and England
Another under-the-radar option here in Loader, who has a staggering amount of competition to work through just to feature for England, let alone the Lions. He was one of the stars of the season for Irish and looked to the manor born playing alongside Super Rugby veterans such as Waisake Naholo and Curtis Rona. With some early career injury issues behind him and the youngster playing with confidence and composure, you would not rule him out making a run at the touring squad.
He is not the only English back three player who could push their case, either, with Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley having excelled over the past two seasons and only narrowly missed out on winning his first England cap. Freddie Steward, if he were to make a flying start to the resumed or new Premiership season with Leicester Tigers, could also put himself in the mix, with the raw full-back having all the foundations of the traits required to excel in the challenges of playing at altitude in South Africa.
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