Two-series Lions tour captain Sam Warburton has named the three Saracens players he believes will definitely be picked when Warren Gatland names his 2021 British and Irish Lions tor squad for South Africa on May 6. The Lions are planning for a three-Test series against the world champions Springboks that will commence on July 24.

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There are doubts about the form of the front-line Saracens players following England’s shocking fifth-place Guinness Six Nations finish, but 2013 and 2017 skipper Warburton doesn’t believe that this rustiness will be enough of an issue to count against the selection of Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Jamie George. 

All three have returned to second-tier club action in the Championship with Saracens in recent weeks and despite that status, ex-Wales back row Warburton feels they have enough credit in the bank from previous times in their careers to now be given a leg-up by Gatland and be included when the tour squad is announced in 14 days’ time.  

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“Out of those Saracens boys, Jamie George, Maro and Owen will 100 per cent go on tour,” insisted Warburton after he launched the new Canterbury jersey the Lions will wear on their South African trip. “What Warren really backs is his training methods and getting players match-fit without having to play. 

“He did it with a lot of players – including myself – over the years. He will take comfort in that he has got four or five games to get those guys ready for the first Test and it’s not really the first Test that is the thing. 

“Everyone looks at that first Test as that Holy Grail of selection but actually the second and third Tests are arguably more important. So even if they are not ready for the first Test they could have three games under their belt and could rock up for the second Test, which is arguably the most important. 

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“Because he knows he has got that buffer he will take them and he has to take them because their ceiling is so high if they play well. I do worry about whether someone like Elliot Daly and Billy (Vunipola) might miss out… whether he thinks Elliot has fallen out of form and Billy might take too much time to get up to full speed from a fitness perspective. 

“Some guys can pick up that fitness a lot quicker than others. That is going to be a conversation he will have to have with Saracens’ fitness staff and the English fitness staff who will have those insights on those players. But if he thinks he can get the Saracens boys – including Billy – up to speed in the first three weeks he will take them but he will have to go off a lot of recommendations and chats with their coaches. 

“To be honest, he needs those Sarries boys playing well to have a good chance as well, not even as starters – just to have them on the bench and involved in the tour. From knowing them personally and having played with and against them they are top players and that is why Maro is a top contender to be captain. He would have watched England wanting those guys to do well because he needs them.”

Warburton added that the aura of simply wearing the Lions jersey and being on tour can have an accelerating reaction in getting players back up to speed and firing. “I heard Jamie George’s quotes for the Six Nations. He said it was like a pre-season, it will be great and that was the same party line I used for both Lions tours because I got injured for two months and I was undercooked for the first three, four weeks…

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“That is why I don’t think he [Gatland] will expect those guys to be hitting their straps when they are playing the South African clubs in the first few weeks. He has probably got the longer-term goal of first, second, third Test with those boys so as far as game time goes, they will hopefully get two starts and maybe one off the bench before they play a Test match and that will get the cobweb offs. 

“Plus when you play for the Lions, it’s no disrespect to anyone else, it brings out a different player, a different mentality and only certain players thrive off that. That is why for me, I can pretty much guarantee every one of the coaching staff will pick Owen Farrell to go on tour. 

“You’d be foolish not to because he is just a leader to have around your environment even if he wasn’t going to start and if he plays himself into form, it’s a bonus. He is massively beneficial and it would be foolish if he is not going to go on tour. Warren will think he has got three, four games to get those guys up to speed and he will back himself to do that.”

  • Sam Warburton was speaking as Canterbury launched the British and Irish Lions Test Jersey. Get yours from www.canterbury.com

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