Jacob Whitehead picks out the learnings from Warren Gatland’s 37-man touring party
Lions squad analysis: Five talking points
The 2021 British & Irish Lions squad announcement did not lack for drama. With the task of choosing five talking points roughly akin to being the fact-checker for a Donald Trump speech, where to start?!
Centres of national defence
Bundee Aki, Chris Harris and Robbie Henshaw were the specialist centres named in the squad, with perhaps only Henshaw feeling assured of selection beforehand. Casualties included the subtler options of Jonathan Davies, Garry Ringrose and Henry Slade, with Manu Tuilagi probably an injury away.
It seems that Warren Gatland is happy to look at Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly as midfield options, with both Saracens clearly benefiting from their versatility rather than Six Nations form.
This is a departure from the Lions’ previous two tours to South Africa, which saw Jeremy Guscott and Brian O’Driscoll as the Test centres – two options silkier than Persian pyjamas.
However, you suspect that Gatland has been obsessively watching the 2019 World Cup final, still the last game South Africa played. The Springboks scored both tries by exploiting Lukhanyo Am’s channel with quick hands and skipping through the cover defence.
To try to combat this, Gatland may not necessarily have picked the best centres in Britain and Ireland but he has picked the best defenders. With the clash of forwards expected to eat up defenders, Harris and Henshaw are able to cover a vast span of metreage on the edge – an absolute necessity with two Tests on the hard and hot turf of the Highveld.
Round, not through
These wide channels will be fascinating, with Gatland’s choice of No 8s also informed by this tactical battleground.
While you might not look at his centres and think of raw incision, the 15m line is the seam where Taulupe Faletau, Sam Simmonds and Jack Conan really thrive. Think of the chosen three as third centres in attack, with the raw pace, size and offloading ability to challenge the athleticism of Am and Damian de Allende.
They have not been picked to go toe-to-toe with Duane Vermeulen over the sponsor’s logo, in the manner that a Billy Vunipola or CJ Stander might have been expected to. That is a really difficult, painful and, quite frankly, barmy way to attack the Springboks.
Instead of expecting to beat farm machinery in the contact area, a far easier way to make metres is to go round them, possibly even trying to create a mismatch with South Africa’s smaller wingers. Faletau, Simmonds and Conan will be asked to find weak outside shoulders, to ride tackles and flick passes back inside.
This has worked for Gatland before – Faletau’s crucial score against New Zealand in 2017 is a perfect example. Just as Gatland has picked his best wide defenders at centre, he has picked his best wide attackers at No 8.
Air-raid squadron in the back five
With at least four lock-six hybrids, Robin McBryde’s forward pack has more flexibility than a circus contortionist, which they’ll need to beat the Springbok locks in the lineout battle.
But fear not – every other second-row/blindside option is a lineout nause, with Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne and Courtney Lawes all Thunderbirds in the air, and Jonny Hill the mastermind of the Exeter set-piece.
With each No 8 also a willing jumper, this might have doomed Billy Vunipola’s case. In the trusty form of Jamie George and Ken Owens, Gatland has selected his steadiest set-piece hookers.
Unclear on the openside
With a squad demographic like this, everything points to a lock-six hybrid starting the Tests, which suddenly makes the openside flanker berth the battle to watch throughout the warm-up matches. A three-way race between Justin Tipuric, Tom Curry and Hamish Watson looms.
Tipuric feels the most attacking option – with Gatland’s No 8 selections, the Lions could effectively step out onto the field for the first Test with four options at centre.
Alternatively, if the coaches want a jackler, Curry is probably the selection, while his lineout ability means that he possibly has the best chance of shifting over to blindside if needed.
However, if Gatland is looking for pure physicality – Watson has to be the bet. Running into the Edinburgh openside looks like accidentally getting trapped in an industrial car wash, where his victims emerge bruised, dazed and foaming at the mouth. According to Opta, his 92% tackle success rate places him second in world rugby.
No fairytale for Kyle Sinckler
The biggest surprise of the Lions squad announcement came just after Jason Leonard read out the name of Sam Simmonds. This is no reflection on the Exeter man’s ability or inclusion but was because the next name on the list was not Kyle Sinckler.
Sinckler was one of the breakout stars of the 2017 tour. At the time on the fringes of England’s squad, he beat out national team-mate Dan Cole for the replacement tighthead spot in the Tests, riding that wave of form to a starting berth in the World Cup final.
Of course, that’s where the story ended, with Sinckler forced off in the first five minutes. However, with the possibility of a triumphant rematch against the Springboks looming, the fairytale seemed back on track, with the fanfare of a good old-fashioned battle against Tadhg Furlong for the Test tighthead shirt awaiting.
Perhaps fairytales are special because they rarely happen. Or maybe they already exist in this Lions squad. Watch Rory Sutherland’s reaction to being selected after an adductor injury left him in a wheelchair and doubting his rugby future.
There will be more fairytales to be written.
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