With the Six Nations now over, all attention will turn to the Lions tour of South Africa. In part two of this multi-part series, we complete our forward pack, giving our data-driven verdict on who should be on the plane.
The players in contention for a Lions squad place have done all they can. While opinions on team selection will rage all the way to the first Test, this series takes a subjective look at the players whose statistical profile could earn them a place in the starting Test team.
• Players’ performance in all Test matches since the start of 2018.
• It will focus on key position-specific attributes.
• All player ranks are for international players with more than five appearances since the start of 2018.
No. 4 and 5: Second Row
Names in the frame: Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Maro Itoje (England), James Ryan (Ireland), Jonny Gray (Scotland), Tadhg Beirne (Ireland), Iain Henderson (Ireland), Jake Ball (Wales), Adam Beard (Wales)
When the Lions selection committee review the options at lock, they may also be considering how it impacts their decision for the Test captaincy. In 2017, it would have been optimistic to expect Alun Wyn Jones to still be a serious contender for a starting Test spot aged 35, but it’s very possible that he’s the leading contender for captain. After all, he’s the active player with the most Lions Test caps (nine) and on the verge of his fourth tour.
Alun Wyn Jones has played the most Test minutes by a lock in the past three years (2,451) and it’s his closest challengers for the No. 4and 5 shirts that come directly behind him in that list (James Ryan and Maro Itoje). Both of those players burst onto the international scene at a very young age and both are pegged as future international and Lions captains. It may be that in 2021 they serve their apprenticeship under one of the best before fighting it out to lead the tour to Australia in 2025.
Ryan and Itoje are both world-class assets, and it’s their ball-carrying ability that really sets them apart. Ryan leads all locks in carries per 80 and total metres gained per 80. But while he accumulates those metres in shorter gains, Itoje has that back-row ability to hit gaps and soft shoulders to chew off metres in chunks. Itoje’s average gain of 86 metres per game is an incredible 27 metres more than any other lock in the world. That includes 10 clean line breaks. Jones’ longevity continues to astonish when you consider he’s made the most tackles of all second rows in international rugby over the last three years, a full 56 more than Itoje who is nine years his junior. That said, we can’t talk tackling machines at this position without mentioning Scotland’s Jonny Gray, who has attempted 387 tackles in total over the last three years at a rate of 17 per game. Out of those, he has only missed 10.
If it’s a battle between Ryan and Itoje to partner AWJ in the Test team then it’s going to be very tight. With the way Test rugby is played now, it’s likely the series will come down to who wins the battle of the two ‘Ts’ – territory and turnovers.
Itoje has a slight edge on Ryan in the lineout to provide territorial security, and he also has the advantage over the Irishman in turnovers. His back-row skills enable him to lead all second rowers by 16 turnovers with a total of 37.
The Analyst’s Verdict: With Alun Wyn Jones not only a leading candidate for Test captain but an elite all-round player in his own right, we reckon it will be the dynamic and explosive Maro Itoje that will pack down next to the Welshman as one of the top-five players in international rugby right now.
No. 6 and 7: Flankers
Names in the frame: Justin Tipuric (Wales), Peter O’Mahony (Ireland), Tom Curry (England), Hamish Watson (Scotland), Jamie Ritchie (Scotland), Josh van der Flier (Ireland), Aaron Wainwright (Wales), Sam Underhill (England)
The back-row position has been a real area of strength for the home nations in the last few years with every nation having significant options at the position. In 2017, Lions captain Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien played the bulk of the minutes, but with both now out of the picture for the 2021 tour, back row could be the position that causes Warren Gatland the biggest headache.
Despite the depth of talent, one concern may be the lack of diversity in skills. Historically in international rugby, there has been a clear difference in the roles between the blindside and openside flanker positions. The blindside was typically more of a defensive animal and a big ball-carrier, while the more glamourous openside possessed back-like ball skills and a nose for pinching balls at the ruck. This is less distinct now in modern Test sides as the number on the back of the shirt has become almost irrelevant in the role they play. What may be of concern to Gatland and his staff is the lack of an obvious ball-carrying option.
When looking at international flankers, it’s the Southern Hemisphere that dominates in ball-carrying expertise, with the likes of Australia’s Michael Hooper, New Zealand’s Ardie Savea and Springbok captain Siya Kolisi leading the way with ball-in-hand. These players have made more than 500 metres each over the past three years and are all averaging more than 80 metres gained per 80 minutes. In comparison, the closest home nations grouping of Hamish Watson, Tom Curry and Justin Tipuric have carried for around 400 metres in that period, averaging around 50 metres per 80.
This may well highlight the tactical choices made by coaches on different sides of the world, but if the Lions do need a heavier ball-carrier in their back row it may be Watson who can provide it. The Scot is the only candidate to appear in the top five for total carries (236), carries across the gain line (103) and dominant carries (56) amongst international flankers over the last three years.
However, there may be one player in the group who can offer something that few others can replicate. It’s often said that Justin Tipuric is a centre playing in a No. 7 shirt and his playmaking skills have shone through in the last three years, with the Welshman making the most passes (195) and line-break assists (8) by a flanker in international rugby. But when the ball is turned over, Tipuric is also the one making crucial tackles all over the field. He leads all flankers with 245 tackles made over the last three years.
On the topic of tackling, it’s Hamish Watson who comes back into the picture. His 92% tackle success from 366 tackles places him second in world rugby.
Watson’s teammate Jamie Ritchie has really impressed in the last 12 months and was probably Scotland’s breakout player in the 2020 Six Nations. Unfortunately, injury has limited his involvement in the 2021 campaign but with 31 turnovers at 1.5 per 80 minutes, he’s tied with Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony for international flankers in a crucial area of the game. The turnover will be a critical battleground against the Sprinboks this summer.
The Analyst’s Verdict: Selection here will come down to the balance Gatland wants in his back row. But we’re going to go for players who can fulfil specific roles. At blindside, fresh from his 2021 Six Nations player of the championship award, Hamish Watson can provide some of the heavier ball-carrying duties whilst having no issue putting his body on the line in defence. In the No. 7 shirt, Justin Tipuric may be one of the most skilled all-round players in the world. His ball skills, coupled with an ability to make tackles from touchline to touchline, could make him a man of the series candidate.
No 8: Number Eight
Names in the frame: Billy Vunipola (England), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Matt Fagerson (Scotland), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs), CJ Stander (Ireland)
The reason the Home Nations haven’t had to rely on ball-carrying from their flankers becomes obvious when looking at the players who pack down at the back of the scrum. This tour however, Gatland’s options aren’t as plentiful as in other positions, and it remains to be seen if the recent news of CJ Stander’s end-of-season retirement will affect his selection chances.
These No. 8s spend the majority of games standing outside the ruck, screaming at their scrum-halves to put them through on crash ball lines through the heart of a blitz defence. Stander and Vunipola have provided that volume-carrying option for their sides over several years. The pair sit in the top three of the No. 8 rankings for both carries and average metres gained per game, with Stander crashing through defenders more than seven times per 80 minutes.
Vunipola also relishes being on the end of a flat pass. His ability to find an offload when he hits contact means it often takes multiple players to secure man and ball, creating space for runners off him. He averages 1.9 offloads per 80 and has made 27 more offloads than any other No. 8 in the past three years.
Taulupe Faletau led the Lions in tackles made in the 2017 Test Series with 39. And at 13 tackles per 80 for Wales over the past three years, he remains one of the most effective defensive No. 8s in the world. Both Stander and Vunipola also feature in the top five in international rugby for total tackles made in that time.
However, despite making just seven total international appearances, there is one man we simply can’t ignore.
Sam Simmonds is clearly not Eddie Jones’s cup of tea. He’s not appeared in an England shirt since the 2019 Six Nations. And with Billy Vunipola as your first-choice No. 8, it will always be a hard battle to get into the frame. But Simmonds may have been the most consistent and effective player in any position in the Gallagher Premiership in the past three years and in 2019-20 was crowned European Player of the Year after driving his Exeter Chiefs side to a Premiership and European Cup double.
As the graphic below shows, Simmonds literally does it all for the Chiefs, including leading the Premiership in tries with six more than any other player.
Premiership wingers – hang your heads in shame.
The Analyst’s Verdict: Gatland probably can’t go wrong with his selection here with all options capable of fulfilling the requirements needed on both sides of the ball. Faletau and Vunipola may be the more obvious choices but on numbers alone CJ Stander’s data shows he could end his career on an ultimate high. As a result, this puts him ahead of both players in our XV. However, we have a sneaky suspicion that Gatland won’t be as willing as Jones to overlook the actions of a certain No. 8 in Devon.
2021 Lions Squad Lineup: The Analyst’s Verdict So Far
So that’s our forward pack selected. How are we doing so far? Next up in this series we dive into the backs.
Design by Matt Sisneros.