Maro Itoje (left), Elliot Daly (top right) and Hamish Watson (bottom right) are popular choices
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
The British and Irish Lions have just one match left until they begin their series against the Springboks, with the skeleton of Warren Gatland’s Test side emerging to leave a number of key selection dilemmas.
The Lions suffered their first defeat on their tour of South Africa, with a reinforced ‘A’ side featuring 11 of the starting Rugby World Cup finalists in a desperate bid to get them up to speed after their recent Covid-19 outbreak.
The contest proved a physically brutal affair, with South Africa A taking the spoils on Wednesday night 17-13 to lay down an early marker in the unofficial ‘fourth Test’.
With just one tour match remaining, against the Stormers in Cape Town this Saturday evening, time is running out for players to put their hands up and force their way into the reckoning for the Test series, which will feature three consecutive fixtures across the next three weeks.
Their remains uncertainty over who will captain the team after Alun Wyn Jones’ return, having recovered remarkably quickly from the dislocated shoulder he suffered just 20 days ago, meaning Conor Murray’s position in the side may prove more vulnerable than initially imagined.
So who makes the final lineup? Our writers pick the teams they would select for the first Test against the world champion Springboks.
The preparation has been less than ideal with only five lead-in games, compromised by a shortened schedule as well as the curse of Covid. There are problem areas, notably in midfield where we take a punt on the fitness of Robbie Henshaw and the form of Owen Farrell. The Englishman needs to front up properly, as, to be fair, he has done for the Lions. Conor Murray just gets the nod ahead of Ali Price at scrum-half where the Lions are not overly-blessed with choice. Stop Faf and the Lions have a chance. If he is allowed to prosper, the Lions are doomed. Murray has to get into him as does Tom Curry who had to play well to edge out Hamish Watson for the No 7 shirt, but Curry is a star turn. There is no point in Alun Wyn Jones coming to South Africa if he doesn’t play. As ever, he will be leading from the front.
Mick Cleary’s Lions XV to face South Africa
Josh Adams has played his way into the side with his try-scoring exploits, while Anthony Watson and Liam Williams will be vital to countering the aerial assault that the Lions know is coming their way. The midfield remains a conundrum. Robbie Henshaw needs to prove his fitness on Saturday but remains first choice while Elliot Daly has been impressive at 13. Dan Biggar has to be the first choice at fly-half after Owen Farrell looked off his game on Wednesday night. Conor Murray’s place is under threat from Ali Price but I expect Warren Gatland will stick with him for his kicking game. Wyn Jones nailed down the loosehead position against South Africa ‘A’, while I expect Maro Itoje and Iain Henderson to start the first Test as Alun Wyn Jones needs time to reintegrate into the squad. The back row, as ever, is hugely competitive but Tom Curry is edging the openside position ahead of Hamish Watson. Just.
Gavin Mairs’ Lions XV to face South Africa
This is so difficult, and could change again after Saturday’s encounter against the Stormers. Elliot Daly’s distribution gets him ahead of Chris Harris, while Liam Williams edges out Stuart Hogg at full-back – provided he is healthy enough after being rocked by Eben Etzebeth. Ali Price over Conor Murray is a big call, but the Scotland scrum-half has looked livelier. Finn Russell’s injury persuades me to go for Dan Biggar. At lock, Adam Beard is the bolter and Tadhg Beirne ousts Courtney Lawes. Tom Curry instead of Hamish Watson is a coin-flip, and Josh Navidi is unfortunate. Jack Conan was considered as well. A six-two bench feels vital. Jamie George has captained on this tour, and would have to take the reins again.
Charlie Morgan’s Lions XV to face South Africa
There are tight calls throughout this selection as strength in depth has developed in certain areas over the tour while positions of weakness have equally been exposed. A back three that can deal with the Springboks’ kicking game is a must. All four centres on tour have acquitted themselves well, but the bonus of Elliot Daly’s long-range goalkicking earns him the start while Robbie Henshaw’s more rounded game nudges out Bundee Aki. The half-backs pick themselves. Up front, loosehead is an extremely close call but Wyn Jones has barely put a foot wrong. The added abrasiveness of Luke Cowan-Dickie earns him selection while Courtney Lawes’ form is rewarded with a second-row berth. The first Test may be a step too far for Alun Wyn Jones – let him focus on getting right for the second. The back row has all bases covered with a lineout option, breakdown prowess, defensive graft and ball-carrying.
Jake Goodwill’s Lions XV to face South Africa
My back three is rock solid under the high ball, but also has tries in spades, with Stuart Hogg bringing broken play menace off the bench. In the centres, Robbie Henshaw gives solidity in the important 12 channel and current form player Elliot Daly injects real gas at 13. In the halfbacks, Dan Biggar is the form 10 and Conor Murray has the big-match experience. Up front, Wyn Jones played himself in against South Africa A, while Jamie George’s lineout link with Maro Itoje swung it for the Englishman. Alun Wyn Jones’ leadership sees him included, while Tadhg Beirne’s heft, ball-carrying, lineout presence and, most importantly, uncanny breakdown work sorts his inclusion. With the breakdown the defining facet of play, I’ve included both Tom Curry and Hamish Watson; the former at No.8. Gareth Davies’ habit of scoring important tries sees him included. The experienced Owen Farrell covers 10 and 12.
Richard Bath’s Lions XV to face South Africa
The ‘Tom Curry at No 8’ experiment was not a roaring success for England but, after seeing the brutish muscle of the South Africa A pack last week, it became clear that the Lions will struggle to match fire with fire; they need to run the Springboks ragged. To that end, the pack is stocked full of dynamism. Mako Vunipola was a colossus off the bench in midweek and alongside the doggedness of Luke Cowan-Dickie and the power of Tadhg Furlong, the front row will be a match for any. The second row has a lovely balance between athleticism – in Maro Itoje – and heft – in Jonny Hill – while the back row is one of buzz and effervescence, one to beat the Springbok juggernauts to the point of contact, one to outmanoeuvre and outthink them. In behind, Josh Adams is the glaring omission but the two selected wings bring another level of threat even if their tour try tally is inferior. Dan Biggar, as palpably the form 10 on tour, starts at fly-half while the centres are a pick of a mediocre bunch. Elliot Daly’s left boot could be invaluable, too.
Charles Richardson’s Lions team to face South Africa
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