Based on performance so far this year here is 50plus4men selection for this year's Lions tour to South Africa. The form players make up the bulk of this group. We don't believe that this group's players need any further introduction:
Stuart Hogg (Scotland) at full-back cements his spot based on his current form and his ability as a game-changer. Unlucky to be injured in New Zealand four years ago just before the test series, he is a class player.
Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales) confirmed his ability in the match vs Scotland with a brace of tries. His fearless ingenuity, pace and ability to make things happen confirm his place on the plane. The youngest player in the party, (and therefore responsible for the welfare of the tour mascot) he matches the presence of a young Keith Earls (Ireland) in 2009.
Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland) cements his place after two excellent performances against England and Wales. His physicality, speed and ability to find space earn him a spot on tour and on the current trajectory, possibly contention for the test ‘23’.
Finally, both Anthony Watson and Johnny May (both England) are just finding form at the right moment which puts them in first-class. Both are players, with great speed and foresight to penetrate defences. Watson performed brilliantly in New Zealand where he was a constant threat in attack and solid in defence. He can play anywhere in the back three.
A young Cameron Redpath (Scotland) announced himself in his debut game against England in this year's Six Nations. An incisive runner who creates space in channels on either side of him; he was the man of the match. We see him as being one to watch creating space for Rees-Zammit out wide. A mouth-watering prospect for the two youngsters!
Owen Farrell (England) is a class player through and through. He is going through a rough patch at the moment and not playing with the freedom seen in his earlier days. Whether that is due to England’s current style of play, or his own intentions is an open question. However, his ability to play at 10 or 12, combined with his kicking accuracy (aka Neil Jenkins from 1997) makes him an automatic selection. Despite his success in New Zealand, he does not make my Test XV on current form but is a shoo-in for the squad. That said, his solid performance against Wales indicated that he was on the fringes of getting back to his best.
Finn Russell (Scotland) is in great form and has the class to mastermind the game. His experience and ability to turn the game on a six-pence through doing the outrageous, as well as dominating the territorial space makes him my flyhalf.
On current form, Alistair Price (Scotland) is our first choice selection at scrum-half. He displayed excellent form in the England game and his link with Russell at fly-half is a bonus.
Ben Youngs (England), despite not quite hitting his straps at the moment, is too high a class player not to ignore. A selection for the tour to Australia (2013) and again in 2017 New Zealand (despite having to pull out for family reasons) make him an automatic selection in our view. Having 100+ caps is essential experience when playing in the high-pressure cauldrons of Newlands and Ellis Park.
Moving to the forwards, Toby Faletau (Wales) is a clear candidate for the Eighth-man slot. His experience from the New Zealand tour in 2017 where he played in all three tests, on top of his current form leads him to be our first choice selection for the back row.
Billy Vunipola (England) has been a man-mountain, the rock around which England have based their game over recent years. These credentials should be enough to earn him a slot. He was back to his rampaging best against Wales. This said he'll need to stay injury-free and get a lot of game time to retain his form (another Saracens casualty).
Justin Tiputric (Wales) is the in-form open-side flanker (no. 7) of his life, having had excellent games against both Scotland and France. He has huge experience and is an excellent link-man at the breakdown, with the fitness to last 80+ minutes. He will be an asset on the hard grounds of the high-veld.
Hamish Watson (Scotland) is on fire! In our view, his performance against England alone merits selection and he was one player who also excelled in the Wales game. Not a particularly tall fellow, he makes up for lack of height through his ability at the breakdown, with a high tackle-rate and his ability to maximise turn-over opportunities.
We had to include Tom Curry (England) in our selection. He had a good autumn series (albeit playing no 8), and his performances in the World Cup in 2019 possibly made the difference between England making the final, and not doing so. He has not hit his straps quite yet but will be an asset in South Africa with his physicality matching his ability to get around the park.
Completing the presence of an all-England back row, Sam Underhill’s (England) physical presence, tackle-count and work-rate – particularly at the break-down, makes him a shoo-in for us. Subject to his recovery from injury and the ability to get game-time in before then, we cannot see Gatland leaving him out.
The second row sees a huge degree of depth across the four nations, with a mix of form, class and both.
Let us turn to the player of the tournament so far (outside of Antoine DuPont of France). Maro Itoje (England) would be our first name on any team sheet. A key player and
performer for the Lions in New Zealand in 2017, he has the maturity, skills and physical attributes beyond his years. He easily makes the test team and his captaincy of England Under-20s in their Grand Slam year of 2014 adds additional credentials to his leadership ability. He is my tour and test captain, mirroring the likes of the greats in the second row we mentioned earlier. A colossus on the field, with the gravitas off it. An ideal candidate.
Accompanying him in the second row on the plane would be Alun Wyn Jones (AWJ) (Wales) and Jonny Gray (Scotland). AWJ makes his fourth Lions tour, having been in South Africa (2009), Australia (2013) and New Zealand (2017). On form and age (35yrs) he may not make the test team, but his class experience will be telling during the tour as a whole. To leave a man who leads from the front and who has 150-plus caps would be a mistake. He would also be Gatland’s playing lieutenant – an association that goes back to 2007/08. Gray has put in two excellent performances, none more so than that against England, where he ‘owned’ the line-out and made extensive contributions in the loose. On form, he would potentially partner Itoje in the test team, though our preference would be to have someone with slightly more bulk and physicality.
Based on his current form and line-out ability Ryan (Ireland) would add further competition for test berths. He also does the hard yards and would complement Itoje well in the second row.
The front row has an abundance of riches. Tadgh Furlong (Ireland) is a definite tourist. Having been a first-choice tight-head in New Zealand, and on the bench following injury in the tournament so far, his class in the tight, tackle-count and mobility around the field sets him apart.
Kyle Sinckler (England) performed in New Zealand and also for England in the world cup. He has also hit recent form, and whilst his temperament could be a liability in the tests, he remains our first choice. The other players in the mix form part of those ‘waiting in the lounge’.
Jamie George (England), whilst he may not have started against Italy, is too good a player to leave out. His consistent performances for the Lions against New Zealand in 2017, and his current performances in the loose, make him in our view a certain tourist and the test hooker.
Luke-Cowan Dickie (England) and Ken Owens (Wales) are the two key men that complete the hooker position. Both will give George the competition he needs to perform at his best, and both could easily make the starting XV if George is not on form.
To complete the front-row, the loosehead position is the most tightly contested. Mako Vunipola (England) has an excellent record and should make his third tour. A no-nonsense scrummager, he has been influential in England’s recent successes over the years.
In part 3 see who we think could still get a wildcard spot on the tour.
Author: Adrian W