Ahead of the first match against South Africa in Cape Town, the Lions have a number of big selection calls to make in the back-row, back-three and midfield.
What should the Lions Test XV be for game one?
After nearly 18 months of wondering if the British & Irish Lions 2021 tour would even go ahead, it’s finally the week of the first Test.
The Lions have enjoyed a promising set of warm-up games, scoring four comfortable wins, with a 17-13 loss to a near full-strength South Africa ‘A’ side the only blemish on their record.
Related: The coaches debate behind selecting a Lions XV
This defeat, against comfortably the strongest opposition of the tour, has shown the Lions what they need to do if they’re to win on Saturday. They need to improve their physicality in the collision area, ensure they win the kicking duel, and exploit South African ill-discipline. This is on top of the impressive scrum parity they demonstrated throughout the 80 minutes.
In the forwards, Warren Gatland needs to select a side who will win collisions and are weapons in the set-piece. In the backs, he needs defensive solidity, kicking acumen, and instinctive finishers. These are the players he should send out to face the Springboks.
British & Irish Lions squad for the first Test:
- Liam Williams (Wales)
Williams suffered a head injury against South Africa ‘A’, but defence coach Steve Tandy confirmed that he was available for Test selection on Monday morning, after passing through concussion protocols.
This is excellent news for the Lions, who need to select their best aerial full-back, especially if they continue to struggle in the kicking game.
The decision is made easier by Stuart Hogg’s isolation period, which forced him to miss three warm-up matches. If Williams fails to return to fitness, Hogg should be elevated into the starting XV, with Elliot Daly sliding onto the bench.
- Anthony Watson (England)
Has only scored two tries on tour, fewer than other wings in the Lions squad. Josh Adams has scored eight, Duhan van der Merwe five, while Louis Rees-Zammit has added three.
Related: Top try-scorer Lions 2021
However, the Bath winger has looked superb. His performance against South Africa ‘A’ was particularly impressive, especially as he was only elevated to the starting XV after Josh Adams’s late withdrawal to see his partner give birth.
Another player who is excellent aerially, his footwork has the game-breaking ability which the Lions need. A better defensive option than van der Merwe and Rees-Zammit.
- Chris Harris (Scotland)
The 13 channel is a real battleground, especially with the Springboks’ propensity to blitz their wingers in defence. Chris Harris’s distribution has been superb, beating the edge on multiple occasions with slick handling. Far quicker than expected, as he showed against the Sharks, and has stepped in as first receiver surprisingly often.
However, the main reason Harris is in the starting XV is what he does without the ball. The best defensive outside centre in the northern hemisphere, his positioning shuts down any easy metres along the 15-metre line.
Elliot Daly offers an option as a second playmaker, but potentially lacks physicality when put head-to-head with the brilliant Lukhanyo Am.
- Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)
Before facing the Stormers on Saturday, Henshaw hadn’t played for the Lions since a try-scoring appearance against Japan at Murrayfield after a hamstring tweak.
He dovetailed well with debutant Marcus Smith, cutting back against the grain several times to good effect. Really strong in contact, and an excellent choke tackler. Adds more to the attack than international teammate Bundee Aki.
Outside centre is probably his best position, but the Lions should try and get their two best centres into the same midfield.
- Josh Adams (Wales)
Impossible to leave out on current form. Has scored eight tries, is an aerial predator, and tenacious in defence. He’ll need to be, as his opposite number on Saturday will likely be Cheslin Kolbe.
Could be named as a Test Lion in the same week as first becoming a father.
- Owen Farrell (England)
Dan Biggar hasn’t been quite his usual self this tour, while Farrell has actually looked like the fly-half with the most attacking fluency – at least until Marcus Smith arrived on the scene…
Struggled with his tactical kicking against South Africa ‘A’, but there are few players in world rugby you’d back to address the issue better. Lands the pressure kicks.
- Conor Murray (captain) (Ireland)
Ali Price has been the form nine on tour, but Murray’s kicking game is still superior within this Lions squad. Big Test matches are won through experience and game management, which the Munsterman provides in spades. He is also an exceptionally physical foil for Faf de Klerk to contend with.
Price would be the perfect bench option if the Lions need to increase the tempo of the game.
- Rory Sutherland (Scotland)
Loosehead is possibly the only position in the Lions squad where any of the players on tour could feasibly start the first Test. Wyn Jones is a menace at the breakdown, while Mako Vunipola’s handling in the loose has redefined the skillset of the position.
However, Rory Sutherland’s greatest strength is his scrummaging. The Lions are playing South Africa. There’s no need to overthink it. Against an opponent’s greatest strength, fight fire with fire.
- Jamie George (England)
Set-piece, set-piece, set-piece. There’s a theme developing. George is the best scrummaging hooker in the squad, and there’s probably no man in world rugby better suited to nailing a pressure throw.
Pushed relentlessly by Luke Cowan-Dickie throughout the tour. One alternative strategy might be to start LCD, give the Exeter man 35 minutes to throw his physicality round in the loose, and then bring on Jamie George to solidify the set-piece for the final 45.
- Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
Possibly the only set position in the Lions Test XV, which is remarkable considering Kyle Sinckler’s pedigree.
Ireland’s best prop in a generation, with frightening physicality and delicate soft skills. Against South Africa, the Lions’ most important player.
- Maro Itoje (England)
Precociously talented, his inclusion in the second Test against New Zealand in 2017 helped to sway the series. Capable of going toe-to-toe with Eben Etzebeth, but will need to cut down on penalties while retaining his nuisance.
As his performance against New Zealand in the 2019 RWC semi-final showed, a man for the big occasion.
- Adam Beard (Wales)
The bolter. Simply put, he’s been the form lock of the tour, while Alun Wyn Jones is still fresh back from injury. Has outperformed Iain Henderson and Jonny Hill so far.
His biggest strengths – maul defence and lineout jumping – are exactly what the Lions need to counteract South Africa’s strengths. Showed impressive attacking nous to both start and finish a try-scoring move against the Stormers on Saturday.
- Tadhg Beirne (Ireland)
A big decision here for Warren Gatland. Does he want a lock-six hybrid amongst his flankers for added physicality, or does he want a pair of dynamic fetchers?
Luckily for Warren Gatland, Tadhg Beirne fulfills both roles. After an exceptional Six Nations, the Irishman has played his way back into his best form, and enjoyed his strongest performance of the tour against the Stormers. Also a superb lineout operator.
Has beaten more defenders than any other Lions forward on tour.
- Tom Curry (England)
His battle royale with Hamish Watson could still tip either way. Ultimately, Curry’s outstanding performance against South Africa ‘A’ gets him the nod – his physicality was unsurpassed by any player in red.
Give Curry the chance to atone for England’s Rugby World Cup final defeat and replace him with a snarling Watson if he’s not up to the challenge.
- Taulupe Faletau (Wales)
Made more tackles than any other player in the Lions squad. Can drop back for the high ball. Brilliant athlete at attacking the 15m channel, where he can be pitted against the Springboks’ best backline defender, Lukhanyo Am. Also, gives the Lions a fifth lineout option.
If injured, the best solution is probably to push Tom Curry over to No. 8, and bring Watson on at openside.
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- Luke Cowan-Dickie (England)
Unlucky not to start, but will be a belligerent force off the bench. One of the Lions’ best chances of crossing with a pick-and-go.
- Wyn Jones (Wales)
Mako Vunipola’s cameos off the bench have been impressive, but Wyn Jones’ scrummaging is still superior. Another decorated jackler.
- Kyle Sinckler (England)
Will provide impetus, while his ball-handling can also help the Lions chase the game. Desperate to feature against South Africa after being knocked out during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final.
- Iain Henderson (Ireland)
Alun Wyn Jones is back but isn’t especially suited to a bench role. Give him another week to push for the starting XV.
Henderson is the next best second-row on tour, and an unparalleled choke tackler. Bring him on late to exploit tired carries.
- Hamish Watson (Scotland)
“Give us thirty minutes of havoc”. Will feel aggrieved to miss out on the starting XV, especially as he was denied Curry’s opportunity to go up against top-tier opposition.
- Ali Price (Scotland)
Comfortably beats out Gareth Davies, and a good performance could see him start the second Test.
- Dan Biggar (Wales)
Infallible in big games, and allows Farrell to move to centre if one of the midfield is injured.
- Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
The choice here is between Hogg and Elliot Daly. Both are great tactical kickers, with pace to burn, who occasionally struggle in the air.
Daly has the advantage of covering wing and outside centre, while Hogg is the better all-round footballer. Gatland chooses the game-breaker in his Lions squad, with Liam Williams covering wing.
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