At the end of the most compelling Lions tour in a generation, a number of Lions stalwarts have participated in their final tour wearing the red jersey. For some, such as Rory Best, Alun Wyn Jones and Sean O’Brien, the Lions has been an important and repetitive part of their professional sporting careers, with seven tours between them. It will be bittersweet for these players not to have won their final Lions tour considering the successes of four years ago in Australia, but drawing away to the All Blacks is a huge achievement, and should be considered as such. The fact that the Kiwi media no longer treat the concept with disdain is evidence enough. Beyond the seasoned campaigners, Jared Payne, Ben Te’o and James Haskell all added something to the tour, but are unlikely to be able to repeat the experience due to their age and the influx of new talent that heralds an exciting new era for Northern Hemisphere Rugby. But before we speculate on the potential players four years from now, we should salute those who were valued warriors in the field, but will likely have to settle for spectating during South Africa 2021.
Alun Wyn Jones
A true warrior, and one for whom losing is the ultimate anathema. Alun Wyn Jones has been the cornerstone of the Lions pack under Warren Gatland’s leadership and has played all nine test matches in the last three Lions tours. At the age of thirty-one though, he is unlikely to make the squad for South Africa and even if he were, it would be a surprise if he made the test team with the likes of Joe Launchbury, George Kruis and Iain Henderson snapping at his heels. For Jones, representing his country is the ultimate honour and as captain during the Lions’ victory in the Third Test in Sydney four years ago, he gained the honour of lifting the trophy with Sam Warburton. His influence on the dressing room will be missed, but others will step into the breach.
One of the players of this year’s tournament and a singular pain to opposition forwards both at the breakdown and in the loose. Currently thirty years old, O’Brien will be too old at thirty-four to perform the dynamic role required of an Openside Flanker against the expected marauding Boks pack. With two successful Lions tours under his belt though and five test caps, the stalwart Irishman can be hugely proud of what he has achieved in the jersey and will add to his burgeoning reputation as one of the best forward to emerge from the Leinster set-up. With him gone, expect to see continuing Irish representation in the form of Dan Leavy and Jack Conan.
Tipped as a possible captain before the squad announcement and a consummate professional at the age of thirty-four, Rory Best has been a credit to the shirt even though he never achieved a test cap during his two tours. It is too his credit though that he has dominated the Ireland no.2 shirt for so long, so much so that the position looks rather bereft with his retirement looming in the next couple of years. He may have regrets over his lack of test caps, something largely down to his lack of carrying dynamism and erratic line-out throwing, but he will be long remembered as a gentleman of the game and no doubt will go on to influence the next generation of Irish international hookers.
Another two-timer whose age will preclude any further Lions appearances. Jonny Sexton has been the heartbeat of the Irish side since the start of the decade and his proved his international class having appeared in all of the last six Lions tests, starting five. He didn’t have the strongest domestic season with Leinster in 16/17 and struggled at the start of the tour after a long season, but grew into the tour and proved crucial in his axis with Owen Farrell which stretched the All Blacks defenders and allowed the Lions to gain a foothold against a team known for pulling away in the second half. It is not as if the Lions will be lacking for fly-halves in South Africa in four years times, but Sexton’s experience will be missed, even if Owen Farrell was the man with the golden boot.
A man for whom overseas tours is his key motivation in rugby. James Haskell had previously never managed to secure a spot on the flight on a Lions tour and only succeeded this year when Billy Vunipola ruled himself out with an injury. Even though he failed to make a test appearance, he added a semblance of experience to the midweek side appearing in four matches, including the win over the Chiefs. He was regarded as integral to the squad dynamic off the field and instilling a relaxed atmosphere when the squad could have adopted a siege mentality. If Gatland gets the chance to coach the team again, he will need players like Haskell to shape the dressing room against the Boks, but at thirty-six in 2021, that is unlikely to be Haskell himself.
There is a possibility that Dan Cole could make a third Lions series in 2021. As a thirty-four year old prop, Cole wouldn’t necessarily be out of place against the Springboks against whom the battle in the scrum will be crucial. He was unable to build upon the three caps won against Australia four years ago during this year’s tour, but other than Tadhg Furlong was the team’s strongest scrummager and will have benefited his younger compatriots with his knowledge and judgement. He will likely go one playing for Leicester and England for many years to come, but with the front-row evolving into a more athletic position, Cole will probably miss out on completing a clean sweep of all three Southern Hemisphere giants.