From Covid outbreaks and empty stadiums to brutally physical Tests and hour-long video rants, the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa is not something that will pass from the memory anytime soon, for good and bad alike.
The Springboks’ physicality, tactical nous and much-improved conditioning from the first Test were enough to secure the home side wins in the second and third Tests and deny Warren Gatland the final feather in his Lions cap.
The quality on and off the pitch of the series is up for debate, though the fact the better team won the series is not. The Boks, after a considerable amount of time out of rugby during the pandemic, reinforced their status at the top team in international rugby, something that will send them into the Rugby Championship and the November Tests buoyed but with a target on their back.
As for the Lions, eyes now turn toward 2025 and the tour of Australia, with the invitational side the reigning champions in that particular match-up after the Lions recorded a 2-1 series triumph over the Wallabies in 2013.
Four years is a long time in rugby and there is likely to be a very different look to the touring squad that heads to Australia, despite every Lions cycle tending to bring back a solid returning core of players from the previous tour.
At the ages of 34, 33 and 32 respectively come 2025, the trio of Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones and Rory Sutherland are not going to be out of contention, but loosehead is a position where you can be fairly confident of some fresh blood coming into the mix.
With that in mind, and an awareness of the titanic scope to be entirely wrong on this given the considerable number of variables that can come into play, why not take a look ahead to 2025 with The XV and debate what that touring squad may look like?
Starting at loosehead, at the ages of 34, 33 and 32 respectively come 2025, the trio of Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones and Rory Sutherland are not going to be out of contention, but it is a position where you can be fairly confident of some fresh blood coming into the mix.
Vunipola will face a challenge for his spot with England from Ellis Genge, who many thought was unlucky to miss out on this Lions tour, especially after he took on a prominent leadership role with Eddie Jones’ side in the absence of so many senior players. If Andrew Porter’s rumoured return to loosehead also comes to be, he is likely to be one of the favourites for a spot too.
At hooker, you can safely write off a 38-year-old Ken Owens and Jamie George will be up against it to make it at 34, but Luke Cowan-Dickie, who will be 32, could definitely put his hand up, especially if he has not lost his dynamism in the loose at that point.
Rónan Kelleher will be at or near the front of the queue for a spot and the victor of Elliot Dee and Ryan Elias to be the successor to Owens’ starting jersey with Wales will be difficult to discount. Tom Dunn has been the epitome of consistency for Bath, while Alfie Barbeary, if he stays fit, could be one of the most potent players in the Lions’ armoury, whether that be at hooker or back row.
There could be potentially very little movement at tighthead in 2025, as none of Tadgh Furlong, Kyle Sinckler or Zander Fagerson will be over the age of 32 in four years’ time. Furlong might opt for a French or Japanese adventure at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season and Sinckler will still need to be offering his trademark ability in the loose, but all three could, if in form, return.
One wild card is Leinster’s Tom Clarkson, with the youngster highly thought of and surely part of the logic behind a move for Porter back to loosehead. Tom O’Toole, Leon Brown and Will Stuart would seem to be the other frontrunners currently.
Always difficult given the physicality of the position and the need for experience, but if you’re looking for some relatively unknown names, put Phil Brantingham (Newcastle Falcons’ loosehead), Fin Baxter (Harlequins’ tighthead and loosehead) and James Harper (Sale Sharks’ tighthead) on your radar.
Let’s go ahead and tempt fate by ruling out a 39-year-old Alun Wyn Jones and a 36-year-old Lawes in the second row, whilst Tadgh Beirne and Iain Henderson will both be up against it at 33, but certainly not out of the equation. Maro Itoje, Jonny Hill and Adam Beard, on the other hand, could all still be firmly in their primes.
Ireland and Leinster’s James Ryan would be the obvious first name to suggest here, given the surprise surrounding his omission this year, whilst Nick Isiekwe has quietly excelled in the hybrid lock-blindside role that Beirne and Lawes have so impressed in. Jonny Gray wouldn’t let anyone down and neither would Charlie Ewels, with both bringing plenty of set-piece nous and size at the position.
There are a lot of up-and-coming talents to throw into the mix here, with Ryan Baird, Cormac Izuchukwu and Thomas Ahern offering up a vintage crop from Ireland; Ben Carter and Christ Tshiunza carry the flag for Wales, and although a little older, not enough people have talked about Scotland’s Callum Hunter-Hill over the past couple of years. England’s cadre of hopefuls is typically voluminous, with Joel Kpoku, Ewan Richards and Chunya Munga all set to feature prominently over the next four years, as should senior cap George Martin.
The back row is another area where there should be plenty of change, with Wales’ contingent of Taulupe Faletau, Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric all set to be midway through their 30s, whilst Hamish Watson will be 33 in 2025. Tom Curry, remarkably, will still only be 27, Jack Conan will be 32 and Sam Simmonds will have just turned 30, so they may offer some sort of consistency in selection.
Conan’s Leinster team-mates Scott Penny, Dan Leavy and Caelan Doris could all be hunting down a spot if they can stay fit over the next four years, and Munster’s Gavin Coombes has arguably been the form back row in Ireland over the past 12 months. Jamie Ritchie may be the stand-out candidate from Scotland outside of Watson, though Matt Fagerson could yet join his brother by wearing the iconic red jersey.
There are rich pickings in England and Wales too, where Sam Underhill, Ben Earl, Jack Willis, Taine Basham and Aaron Wainwright would all be conceivable options. Could Billy Vunipola fight his way back in? Or maybe Zach Mercer, if he continues to excel upon moving to France? Alex Dombrandt and Ross Moriarty would flesh out the physicality of the back row as well.
As with the front rows, if you are looking for some potential fast risers over the next four years, mark down Munster’s Alex Kendellen, Scarlets’ Carwyn Tuipulotu and Gloucester’s Jack Clement as potential bolters.
Ali Price, at 28 currently, would be the strong favourite to continue at No9 for the Lions, with Conor Murray and Gareth Davies potentially having played their final Lions tour. This would open up space for Tomos Williams, another contentious omission this year, as well as Dan Robson or Ben Spencer.
Ulster’s Nathan Doak and Munster’s Craig Casey are both notable prospects, and Jamie Dobie will put plenty of heat on Price for his starting spot with Scotland. Don’t dismiss Raffi Quirke or Jack van Poortvliet either, though they will need to push out Faf de Klerk and Ben Youngs respectively for playing time.
The leading candidate at the moment to fill the fly-half void would be Marcus Smith, with the prodigious talent having guided Harlequins to the Gallagher Premiership title as well as impressing on debut for England.
The Lions don’t shy away from veteran leadership at No10, so don’t rule out Owen Farrell or Finn Russell, though, at 35, it could be a tour too far for Dan Biggar. The leading candidate at the moment to fill the fly-half void would be Marcus Smith, with the prodigious talent having guided Harlequins to the Gallagher Premiership title as well as impressing on debut for England.
George Ford will still be in the mix, as could Joey Carbery, although debate will remain as to whether 10 or 15 is his best position. That said, versatility is always a bonus when it comes to making a Lions squad. It’s easy to see Ioan Lloyd pushing to be involved as well and also brings that cover at other positions.
Elliot Daly and Robbie Henshaw will likely both back themselves to be involved in another tour, but the rest of the centre spots could open up over the next four years. If Cameron Redpath can solidify his role with Scotland, he could be in the mix, as could English No13s Joe Marchant and Ollie Lawrence, who will be going head to head with Garry Ringrose.
Wales’ Owen Watkin would offer physicality, as would the up-and-coming Mason Grady with the right development and opportunities over the next few years. If Dan Kelly can continue to be a part of Leicester Tigers’ resurgence, don’t ignore him either.
Finally, we come to the back three. Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams will be 33 and 34 respectively, so not out of the question, although their battle will be with Father Time as much as it is with their positional rivals. Josh Adams, Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson are all still young enough to be among the favourites to return, whilst the sky is the limit for Louis Rees-Zammit.
If he continues to play well and maintains his trajectory, Freddie Steward could bypass the very formidable competition of Hugo Keenan, Blair Kinghorn and Max Malins to nail down a spot as a full-back in the touring squad, whilst the Irish contingent of Jordan Larmour, Jacob Stockdale, James Lowe and Robert Baloucoune all have the ability to be in the mix.
Darcy Graham and Joe Cokanasiga are a nice ‘little and large’ combination to keep an eye on, Ben Loader is as talented as anyone in this conversation and Louis Lynagh has dazzled in Quins’ run to the title, not to mention adding a very intriguing narrative in Australia, where his younger brother has recently signed with the Reds.
If looking for the next Rees-Zammit, who can come straight out of school and knock on this kind of door, keep an eye on Cassius Cleaves. He has still got a lot to do to acclimatise to senior rugby, but he could have a fair amount of Premiership rugby under his belt by then.
British & Irish Lions squad for the 2025 tour of Australia
Loosehead props: Andrew Porter, Ellis Genge, Rhys Carré.
Hookers: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Rónan Kelleher, Alfie Barbeary.
Tighthead props: Tadgh Furlong, Kyle Sinckler, Tom Clarkson.
Fly-halves: Marcus Smith, Owen Farrell, Finn Russell.
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