2021 Lions Squad Selection: Who Goes to South Africa, Part IV
With the Six Nations now over, all attention will turn to the 2021 Lions squad selection for South Africa. In the final part of this series, we complete our Lions starting XV. Who gets to wear the coveted red jersey? Read on to find out.
The players in contention for 2021 Lions squad selection 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.
As outlined in our introduction to this series, the data analysis below covers:
• 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. 12 and 13: Centres
Names in the frame: Owen Farrell (England), Bundee Aki (Ireland), Sam Johnson (Scotland), Manu Tuilagi (England), Henry Slade (England), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland), Garry Ringrose (Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Wales)
As much as the combination at No. 9 and 10 dictates the style of play in a team, their ability to deliver that style is largely dependent on the combination at centre. That combination acts as the conduit between the creative pivots and the finishers in the back three.
Centres are often required to fulfil a multitude of different roles. The ones that can balance that while still getting the best from their own skill sets are the ones that make the biggest impact at Test level. Look at the centres in the frame for the Lions this summer. Whether Owen Farrell plays at 10 or 12, he offers game-management skills coupled with defensive leadership. Manu Tuilagi provides that go-forward, direct approach that few in world rugby can match and can do that from either 12 or 13. Over the last two years Robbie Henshaw has split his time almost 50/50 between inside and outside centre, offering a direct carrying option at 12 or a game-breaking threat in wider channels at 13.
Therefore, the combination Gatland opts for will largely define how his 2021 Lions are set to approach this series with the Springboks.
At inside centre you have the age-old debate of a heavy ball-carrier vs a creative kicker (think Mike Catt and Mike Tindall, England 2003). Bundee Aki has become one of the most consistent wrecking-ball centres in world rugby but it’s his ability to also hit gaps and beat defenders that makes him such a nightmare to deal with. In fact, Aki has beaten more defenders since 2018 than any other inside centre.
Then you have the England Captain. His ability to do all aspects of the 12 role at Test level is relatively unique but it’s the balance he provides as a second 10 that will be so enticing to Gatland as they inevitably look to manage the field position game against the ‘Boks. Only Kurtly Beale and Dale Steyn kick more at 12 than Farrell but he probably doesn’t get credit for his ability to create. Only Wales’ Hadleigh Parkes has more line break assists in world rugby over the last three years.
This is why Tuilagi has had so much joy playing at 13 for England where he’s able to wreak havoc in space in wider channels. He leads all centres in world rugby with seven tries in 10 games since 2018, and that tells its own story.. However, as he looks to make his latest return from injury with Sale Sharks in the final weeks of the season, he is rapidly running out of games to prove his fitness for a Test shirt.
The other option open to Gatland is to follow the Lions’ pattern of picking gliding runners whose style never outweighs their substance. Brian O’Driscoll and Jonathan Davies spring to mind over the past 20 years. Both were integral to so many great Lions moments. Davies is still in the mix this summer, but he may face a significant fight to hold onto his Lions jersey. That opposition comes in the form of Garry Ringrose who, like Davies, has struggled with injuries of late but has put together quite the statistical CV.
The Leinster man follows in the great BOD’s footsteps as a stylish, elusive runner that can unlock a defence with a sidestep and a burst. He leads all 13s in clean breaks (25) and defenders beaten (60) since 2018. Ringrose combines that with great creativity, delivering five try assists and 12 line break assists over that period, which are also position-high statistics.
His countryman Robbie Henshaw also deserves a mention here as one of the most impressive backs in the 2021 Six Nations. His ability to play both positions equally effectively, racking up six tries and making 78 tackles since 2018 (the tenth-most of any 13), must make him a shoo-in for a place on the plane to South Africa.
The Analyst’s Verdict: There are so many candidates here that some of these names will likely not make it on Tour at all. Henry Slade has been one of England’s best performers in the last 12 months and Davies is a 2017 Man of the Series winner, but both may still be lagging behind the Irish pairing of Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose. The combination of power and guile would offer the Lions a threat that will test all areas of the ‘Boks defence while creating opportunities for the back three to feed off their ball skills. However, you can never underestimate Tuilagi.
No. 11 and 14: Wingers
Names in the frame: Jonny May (England), Josh Adams (Wales), Jacob Stockdale (Ireland), Anthony Watson (England), Darcy Graham (Scotland), Duhan Van Der Merwe (Scotland), Liam Williams (Wales), Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales), James Lowe (Ireland)
The Lions coaching staff really do have an eclectic mix of elite wingers to choose from this summer. Out and out speedsters May and Rees-Zammit. Size and power from Van Der Merwe and Stockdale. And all-round types like Adams, Williams and Lowe.
These elite athletes will be chomping at the bit to get their hands on ball in open space on the flat tracks of Johannesburg and Cape Town and although the location will suit the flyers, Gatland will know he will also need some physicality at the position.
When looking at the group of wingers at Gatland’s disposal it’s interesting to identify two groups. Lowe (20) has the most attacking touches per 80 of any winger in world rugby with the next best Lions candidate Jonny May with 12 per 80. Lowe is quite unique in that sense as his howitzer of a left boot is utilised frequently by Ireland to clear lines, but he’s also a big ball-carrier too. His 76 metres gained per 80 is matched only by Van Der Merwe.
Lowe and May are the only wingers in the mix who seeing over 12 attacking involvements per 80 minutes, with the rest of the group getting the chance to make an impact just 10 times a game or fewer. This puts Van Der Merwe’s impact into perspective. The 10-cap man has still been able to churn out the metres despite seeing fewer involvements than five of his counterparts. He’s also managing to barge and step his way around an astonishing six defenders per 80, the most in the group by some distance (Darcy Graham second with 3.5 per 80).
Patience really is a virtue for wingers and their ability to turn a small number of opportunities into scoring chances is vital. This is where flat out gas comes in handy.
May (60) and Adams (46) have left more defensive lines in their wake than any winger in international rugby since 2018, but in just 640 Test Minutes, Rees-Zammit is making waves. The Welshman’s 1.75 line breaks per 80 has shot him into the limelight as one of the most exciting talents in the game. It’s not only his speed that’s impressed but his awareness and finishing ability too. He’s racked up five tries and three assists in just eight Tests.
The Analyst’s Verdict: Jonny May has been the most consistent and lethal winger in Test rugby for a number of years and his experience, combined with his all-round performance metrics makes him our Lions number 11. Williams likely has a place on the plane (pending his recent injury scare) due to his unique skill set and flexibility across positions. Adams has proven his credibility as a Test winger but we think the new kids on the block Van Der Merwe and Rees-Zammit may be overtaking him here. We’re going with Van Der Merwe to provide the physicality to balance May on the opposite wing. That said, it would not surprise us to see Rees-Zammit have a significant impact on the outcome of the series.
No. 15: Full Back
Names in the frame: Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Elliot Daly (England), Liam Williams (Wales), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
When selecting our Lions Test XV, there have been battles at every position. The home nations possess so much depth in talent in areas like the back row and wings that decisions have to be made based on form, skills and how players fit into a specific team style.
However, as we hand over the final Lions 2021 Test jersey this may be the easiest and clearest selection of them all.
That’s not to say there isn’t depth at the position. There’s a group of world class established campaigners such as Halfpenny, Daly and Williams who have been foundational players for their nations and have all worn the Lions 15 shirt over the previous three tours.
There’s also a new crop of dynamic attacking players getting their introduction to the Test arena with Max Malins (England) and Hugo Keenan (Ireland) both looking like players who could challenge for Lions selection on future tours.
Right now though, the Lions will be able to select the most influential full back in world rugby in Scotland captain Stuart Hogg. This will be the Exeter Chiefs’ third crack at a Lions tour after being the youngest member on the 2013 tour to Australia, playing in the warm-up games at both 10 and 15, before an accidental Conor Murray elbow to the face forced him out of the New Zealand Tests in 2017.
One of Hogg’s greatest strengths is his ability to be constantly involved in play, through returning kicks with his running, his cannon of a right boot, his playmaking ability in the line as a second 10 or in the wide channels putting wingers away in the corner. He averages nine more touches per 80 than Daly and uses them to great effect: he’s beaten 30 more defenders in the last three years than any of his challengers for the red 15 jersey.
In fairness to the other names in the frame there are a few categories where they can lay a glove on the Scot. Daly (nine) has the most tries for a full back in world rugby and Liam Williams brings a returning threat that sees him have the highest metres gained from kick returns (47m per 80). Nobody will ever forget his contribution to one of the greatest Lions tries in the 2017 first Test in Auckland.
It’s been mentioned numerous times through this selection series how important control will be in South Africa particularly from 9 and 10. However, it will not be a stretch to suggest that there will be some kick tennis during periods of play and Hogg has shown from his seven kicks in play per 80 that he’s more than capable of turning a stray kick into a 70+ metre advantage.
The Analyst’s Verdict: There’s no drama here. It’s likely that Williams and Daly will both play their part in the tour and with both more than comfortable on the wing they will be strong candidates as impact players off the bench. This is simply Stuart Hogg’s time to finally cement his place in Lions history.
2021 Lions Squad Lineup: The Analyst’s Verdict
So we’re all set with our Lions XV. How would you feel if Gatland selected the below starting XV for the Lions first Test against South Africa?
Design by Matt Sisneros.