After a while umm’ing and ahh’ing I’ve decided to properly put together a British and Irish Lions squad that I would select if I were Warren Gatland on Thursday.
While there are some on social media who get weirdly toxic if you pick, or don’t pick, a player that they disagree with, at it’s core selecting a Lions squad is actually good fun. Just below Rugby 08’s God tier of rugby union video games is Rugby Challenge 2: The Lions Tour edition, and it’s fair to say I spent too many hours picking and tinkering with prospective squads on that.
So with that in mind, during the simpler days of not having random bods on Twitter shouting at you, here’s my 2021 British and Irish Lions squad selection.
On the whole I don’t think there are any massively controversial selections, although I guess I would say that. The only real bolter of a selection in my mind is Manu Tuilagi, on the basis that he hasn’t played for eight months and is still not fit enough to play for his club side, Sale Sharks.
For me there are six non-negotiable selections across the front row and they are; Jones, Vunipola, George, Owens, Furlong and Sinckler. There are then at least two options for the third choice spots in each position. Cian Healy or Ellis Genge could be considered at loosehead, but Sutherland, if fit, is the best combination of the former’s scrum solidity and the latter’s raw power around the field.
At hooker Ronan Kelleher is in with a shout, but Cowan-Dickie’s big game experience gets him the nod despite some questionable lineout throwing at times, while Zander Fagerson and Andrew Porter certainly deserve recognition at tighthead but Francis’ current run of good form and unmatched workrate around the field secure him a place on my non-existent plane.
The back five forwards is probably the most hotly debated part of the squad, and I think it can be split into four sections. The out-and-out locks could include Adam Beard or Ryan Baird, but Jones, Gray and Ryan are the three clearly standout options in this area.
There are then the 4/6 options who could slot into the engine room or on the blindside flank, with Iain Henderson and Courtney Lawes unlucky to miss out, but Beirne is one of the best players in the world right now, for my money, and although Itoje can be a discipline nightmare, he is a big game player and probably the most complete athlete available.
Finally the flanker options see Sam Underhill miss out after struggling for form and fitness, and Josh van der Flier and Jamie Ritchie not quite do enough to outdo the breakdown threat of Curry, the sheer power of Navidi and Watson and the X Factor of Tipuric. At Eight, Faletau is the standout option while the romance of Stander finishing his international career in the land of his birth is too good to ignore for the poor form of Billy Vunipola and the inexperience of Jack Conan.
Into the backs and the 9, 10, 12 and 13 slots are where the Lions look weakest for my money, without any real world class options up against the likes of Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, especially following injuries to Gareth Anscombe and George North.
The Scottish pairing of Ali Price and Finn Russell are unlucky to miss out at half-back, but to put it somewhat bluntly I just would not feel comfortable see either start a test for the Lions, particularly behind a pack that may struggle to go forward more often than not and in games where game management will be the key for 9 and 10, rather than attacking flair.
George Ford was also a consideration but the control of Murray, the defence of Davies and the speed of Williams are a good balance at scrum-half, while Sexton, Farrell and Biggar are all natural leaders, smart players, and attacking technicians at fly-half.
Into the centres and Tuilagi is the risk but if fit, is the one player who the Springboks could truly fear, alongside Henshaw’s hard running and defensive organisation. Ringrose and Slade both had disappointing Six Nations but have the proven quality and big game experience to nudge ahead of Chris Harris.
Finally the back three which, for my money, close to picks itself. Elliot Daly is a good player and crucially, versatile, but is not in the top two options for either 13, wing or full-back so I’ve struggled to justify his inclusion ahead of the fine form of Adams, Rees-Zammit, Watson or van der Merwe, or the consistent brilliance of Williams and Hogg which will be one of the best battles for a starting spot in the first test.
The truth is that most of the close decisions could go pretty much either way, as Gatland’s decision to only take 36 players to South Africa means there will be names who deserve to go, and would in other years, left at home, at least intially.
This squad offers the best option in terms of balance, quality of training, inter-squad competition, versatility and options of game plan for the coaches though, in my opinion. It’s largely an experienced side when it comes to Lions touring, which will be key this time round due to the restrictions, but is still of an average age and in good enough form to be competitive on the field.
Plus, it’s got three Cardiff players in it. It’s my selection, I’m allowed!