meEvery four years, every time the Six Nations end, hope springs eternal. If a British and Irish Lions tour were scheduled to depart this weekend for Outer Mongolia, there would still be a massive scramble to board the plane and take part in the greatest adventure any rugby player from these islands can experience.
As it happens, an event in Ulaanbaatar is the only alternative venue that has yet to be proposed for this summer’s tour. As a consequence of Covid-19, the trip cannot take place in front of the planned packed houses in South Africa and efforts are still underway to tie together a viable itinerary in the UK and Ireland, with four Springbok Trials currently scheduled for July and August. .
So how do you properly prepare for a “tour” to an unfamiliar place that might turn out to be your own hometown? Safari outings will need some adjustment – you don’t see many cheetahs in Caerphilly or hyenas in Harrogate. And do you really need the exact same athlete at sea level in Edinburgh as in Highveld? Head coach Warren Gatland has trained everywhere, but this may be his toughest test.
It will also be quite strange for the Springboks, if the UK hosts the entire event. Instead of tourists softening up in a variety of unfamiliar places in their diverse country, the brightly colored boot will be on the other foot. Given that the world champions have not played a single minute of rugby since their memorable defeat of England at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, it will be a journey of discovery for everyone involved.
As things stand, Gatland is progressing normally. A match of 36 will be announced on May 6 and, logistics permitting, he will attend France’s postponed match against Scotland in Paris this Friday to enforce a final rule on his team’s Scottish hopefuls. In recent times, in general, it has been possible to accommodate eventual Scottish tourists in a single airport taxi and a comfortable French victory can still provoke a similar scenario.
If Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell are surely nailed already, now is the time for Duhan van der Merwe, Rory Sutherland and Hamish Watson to prove that they are respective more worthy selections than, say, Jonny May, Mako Vunipola and Sam Underhill. Had England not been behind in second to last place in the Six Nations, the equation might be different but, even in the case of electric May, Van der Merwe’s power and Keith Earls’ aerial skills are qualities South Africa would instantly respect.
On any other roster of teams, Watson would be a shoo-in too, having performed just as well for his country in the toughest roles. However, given the need to counter the Boks’ lineout excellence, Gatland will be highly tempted to include Irishman Tadhg Beirne as a blindside option that would nibble on his full-back allowance. He will be equally aware of the defensive prowess of Bath’s Underhill, who has missed this entire Six Nations but is arguably the player England has missed the most. Underhill’s established understanding with Tom Curry would be another plus given the shortage of time to try out new combinations.
Potentially tough on Watson, Josh Navidi, Aaron Wainwright and CJ Stander, then, with another massive decision looming at No. 8. Taulupe Faletau is sure to be on tour, but Billy Vunipola hasn’t been tearing down the house and Caelan Doris has. result injured. Does Gatland settle for Irishman Jack Conan’s industry or does he veer off to left field? South Africa’s great forwards would probably prefer he pick a relatively slow-moving target like Vunipola, but if the Lions group really wants to make strides, they will also need an X-factor pace. One step up Exeter’s Sam Simmonds, unwanted by Eddie Jones but deservedly crowned Europe’s club player of the season last year.
The five forwards seem a bit simpler, the main question surrounding Mako Vunipola’s readiness to scrum out South Africa has mostly been warmed up beforehand against Bedford, Ampthill and Hartpury University in the Championship. As with several Saracen teammates, you’ll have to trust management to keep faith in a proven warrior who started all three trials in both 2013 and 2017.
However, the strong Six Nations of Wales have removed some certainties. Wyn Jones has been enormously trustworthy and bundled alongside Ken Owens for the region and the country. In the middle, similarly, it’s hard to make a convincing argument against the inclusion of Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar, while Wales’ red zone strike rate also bodes well for Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Liam Williams.
Perhaps the other key decision will involve the midfield combination. With life still left in Johnny Sexton’s test career, Owen Farrell may have to take a chance at center where Robbie Henshaw’s form makes him an automatic option. That would leave three spots between Jonathan Davies, George North, Garry Ringrose and Henry Slade, assuming the still-injured Manu Tuilagi can’t miraculously force his way back into the frame.
Do you have many options to choose from? If Faletau, Tadhg Furlong and Maro Itoje can stay fit and fresh, Gatland will certainly have the cornerstones of a series-winning group. If you support Alun Wyn Jones as your captain, you will also put the modern equivalent of Willie John McBride in charge. Wherever the Lions play, they will be up for the challenge.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism