Selecting a Lions’ Test 23 – the forwards

As it stands there are 40 players currently on tour with the Lions in South Africa. Every one of them is international class – these guys are the cream of British and Irish rugby. In order to pick a Test side though there has to be a process of elimination. Pretty much every name is likely to come up in the coaches’ selection meetings but some will fall by the wayside earlier than others.

23 of those on tour are forwards. That needs to be whittled down to either 13 or 14, depending on the composition of the bench.

First pass

  • At hooker, late call-up Ronan Kelleher has had no game time. He will be handy to have around in case of injuries in such a specialist position but is not currently in Test contention.
  • While Zander Fagerson hasn’t looked out of place in a Lions’ shirt he also hasn’t been able to contribute at the same level as he does for Scotland. His carries + tackles rate of 12.0 per 80 minutes is well below what he would normally provide in a dark blue jersey and is the lowest among Lions’ forwards. His penalty count has also been on the high side.
  • Lock is one of the most competitive positions for the Lions – there are several players not even in the squad who could do a job in a Test series. Jonny Hill is the first to drop out here. 75% tackle completion is just not up to scratch for a second row and 5 penalties conceded in 240 minutes is also problematic.
  • Josh Navidi is the kind of guy who would run through walls for his side but as a flexible back row who can do everything well he loses out to specialists in each position who can focus on what they each do outstandingly.
  • After an incredible season for Exeter, Sam Simmonds was fully deserving of his call-up to the Lions’ squad. He has shown glimpses of what he can do but even as a player with a ferocious workrate he has been outgrafted by the other number 8s who also have more strings to their bows.

With 5 names down there are still 18 to choose from. Time to go position by position to eliminate the remaining 4 players required to get down to the final matchday lineup.

Loosehead prop

Slots to fill – 2

Candidates – Wyn Jones; Rory Sutherland; Mako Vunipola

Whichever one of the three players misses out will have every right to feel hard done by. Wyn Jones had his best ever season in 2020/21. Rory Sutherland has been one of the most consistent looseheads in world rugby since taking over the Scotland number 1 shirt post RWC. Mako Vunipola is on his third tour and has played in each of the Lions’ last six Tests.

While Vunipola has the experience and has, in the past, played to a higher level than his competitors there isn’t too much recent evidence that he can scale those heights again. Slotting him in would be putting faith over facts.

Based on Six Nations’ form, Sutherland would have been seen as less likely than Jones to give away scrum penalties but the Welsh loosehead’s performance against South Africa ‘A’ might just have edged him in front in the battle to start.

Given there is likely to be a 50/30 split in minutes and the replacement will need to close out the game, there won’t be too much difference in terms of contribution between the two players that make the Test 23.

Selection:
1. Wyn Jones
17. Rory Sutherland

Hooker

Slots to fill – 2

Candidates – Luke Cowan-Dickie; Jamie George; Ken Owens

This is where things start to get a little ridiculous. Warren Gatland et al will be able to select from three hookers playing at the very top of their game. Singling one out requires a little thought around the blend required from the pack and what primary roles the number 2 needs to fill.

The Lions’ forwards don’t lack for defensive workhorses but an extra carrier definitely would not go amiss. A jackal threat to add to one in the second row and two in the back row should give South Africa all kinds of problems.

On this basis Luke Cowan-Dickie takes the shirt previously filled by Jamie George – as he also has for England. The Exeter hooker is a powerful carrier and outstanding turnover threat. He’s also been perfect in the lineout and at 111kgs is a big old unit for the scrum.

It genuinely is a toss-up between the remaining two for the bench spot. George has the slightly higher lineout percentage. Owens carries more frequently. While the Welshman’s age is unlikely to be an issue for a 20/30 minute blast off the bench there may just be a niggle in the back of the coaches’ minds as to whether a 34-year old could go the full game if the worst happened and the starting hooker went down in the first minute.

Selection:
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie
16. Jamie George

Tighthead prop

Slots to fill – 2

Candidates – Tadhg Furlong; Kyle Sinckler

The coaches will probably welcome a bit of a breather in the selection meeting when this position comes up! Tadhg Furlong will bring the power to start and then, just as the Springboks are flagging, Kyle Sinckler will join the fray – all hyperactive energy and confrontational attitude. Sinckler’s distribution may also be key as the game starts to open up late on.

Selection:
3. Tadhg Furlong
18. Kyle Sinckler

Lock and blindside flanker

Slots to fill – 4 or 5

Candidates – Adam Beard; Tadhg Beirne; Iain Henderson; Maro Itoje; Alun Wyn Jones; Courtney Lawes

The battle in the back five of the scrum is going to be intense and it’s entirely possible that Warren Gatland may go with a 6 forwards, 2 backs split on the bench in order to combat South Africa’s immense forward power.

In that case the big decision around replacements becomes whether to opt for a lock plus a lock/back row hybrid plus a specialist openside among the subs or a full new back row on the bench with the hybrid covering the second row. The attrition rate does tend to be slightly lower for locks but Alun Wyn Jones’ recent injury history may play on a few minds.

In terms of the starters, Maro Itoje and Tadhg Beirne seem about as nailed on as it’s possible to be in a squad this competitive. The old warhorse himself, Alun Wyn Jones, will seemingly lead from the boiler room unless one of his limbs drops off (and even then he’d probably still keep making tackles!)

Adam Beard could point to his work at lineout and maul but his rate of carrying (the lowest of any player on tour) and relative lack of experience compared to the other options count against him.

That brings it down to a head to head between Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson. Both are capable of filling the lock / back row hybrid role. Both have previous Lions’ experience – although in Lawes case that’s Test match experience.

Lawes is more of a penalty risk but has managed a higher work rate and better tackle completion across the tour. Ultimately he has been a bit more dynamic. Henderson’s unique selling point early in his career was some beast mode carrying but of late he has been much quieter and with the Lions in 2021 he’s only broken a single tackle and averages just 0.2 metres per run (4 and 2.6m respectively for Lawes).

Selection:
4. Maro Itoje
5. Alun Wyn Jones
6. Tadhg Beirne
19. Courtney Lawes

Openside flanker

Slots to fill – 2

Candidates – Tom Curry; Hamish Watson

The Lions will want to keep up the pressure at the breakdown from the first minute to the 80th. That requires including both of the specialist 7s in the 23 with the big decision being around who to start and who to bring off the bench.

Tom Curry’s utility covering the whole back row might have made him a more sensible call for the replacement role. With a 6/2 split that is less likely to be required unless there are a few injuries.

It may well come down to how do the Lions want to approach the first 50/60 minutes of the First Test. Do they want to be aggressive and push the boundaries? Or do they want control and to attack the Springboks while minimising the risk of handing them opportunities? The former would swing it towards Curry; the latter is very much in Watson’s wheelhouse.

Selection:
7. Hamish Watson
21. Tom Curry

Number 8

Slots to fill – 2

Candidates – Jack Conan; Taulupe Faletau

As one of the more surprising picks – not too many outside Irish pundits were mentioning his name – Jack Conan had plenty to prove. He has gone about his business in excellent style, carrying more than any other player; maintaining a 100% tackle completion rate; and also providing a turnover threat.

On the other side there is the experience of Taulupe Faletau – one of Wales’ all-time greats at number 8. There have been many comments that Faletau has been quiet on this tour but he has one of the highest carries + tackles rates in the squad (behind only Luke Cowan-Dickie and Conan).

The numbers definitely skew Conan’s way. He has the edge on error count with no tackles missed and no turnovers conceded. The fact that the Irishman has never played an international match at this level before weighs heavily though. Faletau has started the last four Tests for the Lions in the 8 jersey and it’s hard to see Warren Gatland looking past one of his most trusted players. Conan should still have his opportunity to make an impact from the bench.

Selection:
8. Taulupe Faletau
20. Jack Conan


Part 2 covering the backs is here.

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When he's not watching Glasgow, Scotland (and even Edinburgh) Kevin can usually be found with his head in a spreadsheet working out the most obscure Scottish rugby related stat he can put out on Twitter.
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