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Now that the World Cup is over every square inch of the Northern Hemisphere rugby press will be given over to the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021. The tribal tendencies of ex-players and a few hacks with inflated opinions of themselves will offer no real insight into rugby but simply regurgitate the same names again and again.
The truth is that this tour will be entirely different to the last two tours under Lions head coach Warren Gatland. Gatland is now free of the political influence of the WRU and will be operating outside the British and Irish media bubble where opinions of English journalists such as Stephen Jones carry more weight than they deserve.
Unencumbered by the pressured put upon him on previous tours Gatland is now free to pick as he sees fit without having to play to the crowd. So where which nations stand to win and which stand to lose when it comes to the final Lions squad?
There’s no denying that England choked. Warren Gatland doesn’t like chokers. If English players can’t stand up and be counted in a World Cup final against South Africa how will they cope over the course of a three match Lions test?
The truth is that England benefitted from having some extra rest time after their game against France was called off and aside from putting in one performance against an ageing All Blacks side and blowing away one of the worst Australian sides in living memory they did little to write home about.
Outside Owen Farrell, who’s temperament and defence remains questionable, and Maro Itoje, who flatters to deceive it’s hard to see many England players escaping dirt traker status. Much has been made of Curry and Underhill but there are many better options elsewhere who won’t crack under Bok pressure.
Gatland no longer has to select Wales players for Lions tours based on a misplaced sense of loyalty or internal pressure from the WRU.
He has done his successor no favours in leaving behind and aging and broken Wales team only able to play one style of rugby. A style that came up short against the Springboks.
No doubt Liam Williams and George North will come into the reckoning but you can’t count on either lasting a full tour with their history of injuries. Josh Navidi and Aaron Wainwright are likely to be there or thereabouts but are likely to be the exception rather than the rule.
Another side liable to choke when it comes to the big stage. Their performance against an All Blacks side that were later easily beaten by a mediocre England was abysmal and the loss to Japan was inexcusable.
They have little in the way of real talent coming through having to rely instead on old man Best dragging himself through another tournament at the age of 36.
They have also had to plug their talent gaps with a series of mediocre Southern Hemisphere imports, notably from South Africa. If CJ Stander and Jean Kleyn weren’t good enough to play for the Springboks when the Boks were struggling they’re not good enough to beat the current World Champions.
In the backs Ireland continue to rely on Sexton and Murray and crumble whenever they’re not on the pitch and there’s no outstanding candidate ready to come in and take over in either position.
Elsewhere Irish talent has a habit of exploding onto the international stage only to fade into mediocrity or injury ravaged hell.
They might have to even consider taking the “Irish” out of the team name if things continue as they are.
Out of the four sides that make up the Lions, Scotland have by far the most players with most potential to step up in time for the tour of South Africa in 2021.
Forget the World Cup. That was an anomaly. Scotland were unlucky to lose against an Ireland side that had to rely on cheap shots to nullify one of their greatest ever players and Scotland’s preparations for the final group game against Japan were hampered by the weather and World Rugby’s administrators.
The games against Samoa and Russia showed an exciting future for Scotland and one Gatland will have to rely on to overcome the Springboks. Finn Russell is the best fly half available and with Grieg Laidlaw likely to take a step back there’s no doubt that it’ll be a straight shoot out between George Horne and Ali Price for the Lions 9 shirt.
In the forwards Jamie Richie, Hamish Watson and Magnus Bradbury are the only combination capable of countering the threat posed by the Boks and Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray and Sam Skinner will all be competing with each other for places in the Lions boiler room.
Elsewhere the likes of Mark Bennett, Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn, Stuart Hogg, Huw Jones and Rory Hutchinson will all be pushing for places any Lions starting XV and that’s before you even consider players like Kieran McDonald, Stafford McDowell and Jamie Dobie emerging in Glasgow and Edinburgh squads who have two years to prove themselves.
We haven’t even touched on the South African born players who are likely to Scotland Internationals come 2021. Oli Kebble, Jaco van der Walt and Duhan van der Merwe are all likely to be in contention and unlike the Bok rejects favoured by Ireland these were players competing to get into an ascendant South African side and will be more than capable of fronting up. They may even be able to offer an insight into the weaknesses of those they’ve played alongside.
These truths will be hard to swallow for those nations who’ve become used to making up large proportions of Lions squads but 2021 will be Scotland’s year and Warren Gatland knows it.