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Early Predictions for the British and Irish Lions XV in 2021
The longest 2020 Six Nations of all time concluded on the weekend, with England winning their first title since 2017.
Having spent most of my Saturday watching all games, I was left with the same question that most of us were — what does an early British and Irish Lions team look like following the end of the championship?
Well, I decided to put a team together that I think has a solid chance of doing well in 2021 in South Africa. The world champions are a formidable force that will take some beating. But let’s just say that there is enough quality in Britain and Ireland for fans to be optimistic.
With so much rugby to be played from now until the first South Africa vs. Lions test on July 24, 2021, consider this effort a little bit of fun.
Still, I would majorly surprised if the starting team doesn’t look a lot like the one below.
Strong Aerial Presence in the Back Three
You would imagine that Lions coach Warren Gatland will be looking for players comfortable under the highball when he picks his back three.
But at the same time, he will need to strike the balance between aerial proficiency and forward momentum. For me, Stuart Hogg gets the nod at 15, with the lethal Josh Adams at 14, and the perennial threat of May at 11.
15 – Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
The Scotland captain might not have a great deal to celebrate in the navy shirt, but at club level, he is a European and domestic champion with Exeter.
Solid under the high ball, Hogg is also a threat with the ball in hand. Both will come in very handy against the South Africans.
Liam Williams is, on his day, an excellent fullback. But he made just one appearance in the championship — on the wing against Scotland — and it would be massively unfair on Hogg to pass him over here.
14 – Josh Adams (Wales)
Adams finished joint-second top try scorer with three to his name, but that does no justice to how lethal he can be on his day.
As the top try scorer at the 2020 World Cup in Japan, Gatland is highly unlikely to pass on the Welshman. Unless he suffers an injury or a significant downturn in form, of course.
11 – Johnny May (England)
Nailed on for a starting place on the wing, May can play on either side.
There were questions about May’s ability to go backward, but he has definitely improved this side of his game over the past couple of years.
He is an essential player to the 2020 Six Nations champions, and I expect him to feature heavily in South Africa.
Balance in the Center
Getting the mix right at center is a little tricky, given that the partnership I would like to see might not get to feature at all.
I am referring to a partnership between Wales’ Jonathan Davies and England’s Manu Tuilagi. But with Davies looking far from the player of the tour that he was in 2017 — and Tuilagi picking up another injury that will rule him out of the 2021 Six Nations, at least — I think the following duo makes sense.
13 – Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)
Henshaw gets the nod over international teammate Bundee Aki, as he is better in the outside center position.
Henshaw has played here on several occasions for Ireland and Leinster, although he was also outside of Aki at Connacht.
Against South Africa, Henshaw’s size is likely to come in very handy. He is good with the ball in hand, cuts good lines, and offers a penetrative threat in the midfield.
12 – Owen Farrell (England)
Farrell started at 12 against the Springboks in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final but switched to 10 in the 49th minute to accommodate the substitution of Henry Slade for George Ford.
There is a debate to be had about Farrell’s role as the first receiver, but with Finn Russell arguably the best in Europe at 10, it’s likely that Gatland would want both men on the field.
Farrell is a leader and will be up there with the leading candidates for the Lions captaincy with the likes of Maro Itoje, CJ Stander, Justin Tipuric, and Stuart Hogg.
A Classy Half-Back Combination
The half-back combination for the Lions in 2021 will be critical to any success they have against the world champions.
As it stands, this is the best 9-10 that Gatland has at his disposal.
10 – Finn Russell (Scotland)
Fly-half is a tougher pick this time around, given Johnny Sexton’s silver temples and Gareth Anscombe’s long-term knee injury.
Scotland’s Finn Russell is arguably the outstanding 10 that the four nations have in terms of creativity and flair. Although he hasn’t featured for Scotland as much as he would have liked to this year, the Racing 92 star should get the jersey IF Gatland opts for Farrell at 12.
9 – Gareth Davies (Wales)
If only Antoine Dupont was born in Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh, or London…
But the Frenchman was not, so Lions fans will have to just get on with it. But in all fairness, there is enough quality across the three British nations and Ireland at scrumhalf.
Conor Murray was scrumhalf on the 2017 tour, but his form for Ireland and Munster has been poor this year. Ben Youngs is a good shout, but I think Wales’ Gareth Davies is the type of sniping 9 Gatland loves.
Power, Grit, and Speciality in the Back Row
Gatland will know better than anyone about the act of balancing the back row to compensate for this year’s changes to the breakdown.
This is one thing that will probably get pushed to the backseat by many pundits, in favor of highlighting who the big stars are, and why they should play.
In simple terms, some players will be better equipped to maintain the kind of effectiveness and discipline around the breakdown required against the Springboks.
Of course, hard-working and physically strong flankers are going to be crucial to their team’s chances. While the explosive carrying of the number 8 will be just as important.
8 – Billy Vunipola (England)
In my mind, there is no better carrier or tackle-breaking number 8 on the planet than Vunipola.
England is just not the same team without him, and I expect that the Lions will be praying that he manages to make it to South Africa fully-fit and ready to rock.
Vunipola is up against Duane Vermeulen and will be savoring the opportunity to get on the ride side of the result this time around.
7 – Justin Tipuric (Wales)
Wales’ most important player, in my opinion, but one that has never got his just deserts in a Lion’s shirt.
Unlucky, really, given his talent. But Tipuric was behind Sam Warburton in both Wales and Lions jerseys in his prime.
At this point in time, he is the perfect seven to have at the breakdown against South Africa.
6 – CJ Stander (Ireland)
Can you name a better candidate for the number 6 jersey for the Lions against South Africa? I can’t.
On paper, there are players like Josh Navidi, Tom Curry, or Hamish Watson to pick at. There is also Sam Underhill, who will be contesting for the number 7 shirt with Tipuric. But Stander consistently puts in huge work with tackles, rucks, and carries.
More than this, he has ridiculous stamina and can offer so much in the final stages of a match in the high altitude of Johannesburg, where the Lions will play two tests.
Having a South African-born player of his caliber in the team could be huge.
A World-Class Second Row Partnership
Two of the easiest positions to fill ahead of the 2021 Lions Tour to South Africa, James Ryan and Maro Itoje should make for an absolutely world-class double act in the second row.
The lineout will be a huge part of the game, given how strong the Springboks are in this area.
There are some solid options here for the Lions, with Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones a player many would like to see start all three tests. But it’s probably fair to say that Jones is approaching the end of his career, and might not be able to hold off the following two for the big games.
5 – James Ryan (Ireland)
Ireland’s James Ryan is a colossus of a player who is solid in the setpiece and offers a great carrying option, too. He will surely be named as the next Ireland captain.
4 – Maro Itoje (England)
England’s Itoje is a monster in the loose and is arguably the first pick on the Lions team sheet. The complete player, his physicality around the park will be massive.
Well Oiled in the Frontrow
Cohesion in the front three is vital if the Lions are to compete with the South African scrum.
In the 2019 World Cup final, Rassie Erasmus’ scrum gained five penalties against England that swung the pendulum their way in the early stages of the game.
The right scrum is paramount to Gatland’s troops getting the job done in 2021.
Before I name my front row, listen to the clip below of Erasmus emphasizing the plan to “physically bully” their opponents ahead of their match with Japan.
Beating the South Africans on home soil is going to take a mighty effort that starts at the front.
Just a warning, the following clip contains explicit language. If that offends you, I’d suggest skipping the video.
3 – Tadgh Furlong (Ireland)
An absolute bull at the setpiece and a wrecking ball in the loose, the dynamic Leinster tighthead should pip Kyle Sinckler to the number 3 shirt.
This is one player that could really help the Lions’ efforts in gaining those extra inches.
2 – Jamie George (England)
George is the best hooker in Britain and Ireland, and I expect him to feature in all three test matches if he is available.
Ken Owens of Wales will likely get a spot on the bench.
1 – Mako Vunipola (England)
Vunipola should hold off Rory Sutherland, but a dip in form or an injury will see the excellent Scotsman get the nod.
It is no secret that Vunipola’s physicality will be crucial in the scrum. He is a great carrying option to have in the loose, too.
Create Your Lions Team for 2021
From 15 to 1, I am confident that the British and Irish Lions team above have what it takes to take the series to the world champions in South Africa.
As tough an ask as it may be, Lions fans should be confident.
Of course, creating the right blend of players to start test matches is so difficult, when there is so much quality to choose from. For some of us, our favorite players will miss out. Others will bemoan a lack of their countrymen in the team.
But why not play the role of team selector and let me know who you would pick to start the first test in Johannesburg. The comments section is open, so let me know your Lions XV for 2021!