Hallelujah! Whatever the doubters may say, and there have been many, the Lions tour will continue to be a highpoint in the international rugby calendar following a pulsating tour which saw an unheralded side ridiculed by elements of the Kiwi press and written off by many of their own supporters. To achieve a draw versus the sport’s greatest team and to achieve parity against the most enterprising rugby nation on the planet is a huge achievement and a worthy achievement for a group of unrelenting professionals who refused to buckle under the pressure. But now that the tour in four years time has been assured (to be honest, it was going to happen whether the Lions got eviscerated or not, although with this year’s result, it is to be hoped that a more favourable tour schedule can be arranged for South Africa ’21), we can speculate on those likely to make the tour in four years time.
Of course, this is largely a subjective exercise and there will be players who make the tour who currently don’t even exist on our radar (Who would have named Ben Te’o in the test team this time four years ago) and others for whom their international careers will take off in the intervening four years (Zander Fagerson? Kieran Marmion?). But there are many of this year’s vintage who will likely return in four years time, with many hoping to gain their first Lions triumph after this year’s dead rubber. This article will therefore be split into three separate areas regarding the forwards, backs and the longer view on which positions look particularly weak at the current moment and are resultantly there for the taking.
It would not be a huge surprise if the same front-three that lined up against the All Blacks in the drawn third test are the same as those who start the first test in South Africa four years from now. Tadhg Furlong, Mako Vunipola and Jamie George all had hugely impressive tours, even though George felt he had let the team down with his line-out throwing during the final test. But looking at the alternative options available, there aren’t many who stand out to compete against this established triumvirate. The Welsh front-row does not look particularly strong in the near or mid-future, with Tomas Francis, Scott Baldwin and Samson Lee failing to convince Gatland of their worth this year and will need to step up their form dramatically to gain consideration. Zander Fagerson, Allan Dell and Fraiser Brown all show promise with the Scots, but they’ll need to build on this year’s Six Nations successes rather than repeating their defeat to Fiji. The Irish currently have a dearth of hooking options, but England do present options with Sinckler and Marler having previous Lions experience, Ellis Genge tipped by the Daily Telegraph and Tommy Taylor an outside shout if he can establish himself as George’s understudy as Hartley ages.
In the second row, the English also present strong options. Each of this year’s triumvirate of Lawes, Itoje and Kruis will be within the right age range in four year’s time and Joe Launchbury, who was hugely unfortunate to miss out this year, will also be in his prime at thirty years of age. The Irish will likely gain representation with Iain Henderson and possibly either Ultan Dillane or the upcoming James Ryan. The Welsh again seem largely bereft of future second-row talent although Rory Thornton and Cory Hill may surprise us, but the Scots do have options in the two Gray brothers, although it looks like the second-row will be heavily contested once again.
In the backrow, we are likely to see change considering the age of Warburton, O’Brien and Haskell, but it would not be a surprise if Billy Vunipola, having withdrawn this year, finally made his Lions bow against what is likely to be a monster South African pack. England Under-20 captain Zach Mercer, Jack Clifford and Sam Underhill could all be in contention, whilst the Welsh should have representation in at least two of Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Thomas Young and Justin Tipuric. The Irish have real talent in the Leinster pair of Jack Conan and Dan Leavy and Peter O’Mahony will likely be looking to improve upon his Lions experience following his demotion following the first test loss. Apart from perhaps Hamish Watson and Magnus Bradbury, the Scots cupboard looks bare.
Murray, Webb and Laidlaw will all be thirty-two or older when the next tour comes around and scrum-halves need to be quick around the fringes, particularly against the lumpen Springboks. It is possible that none of these three will make that tour, although Murray probably will, but the other positions are very much up for contention. For Wales, Gareth Davies presents another option if he manages to supplant Webb in the Welsh national team and the same applies for Ali Price north of the border. For England, neither Ben Youngs or Danny Care are likely to get another opportunity considering their ages and so a whole new cohort of scrum-halves will be required for the national team. Jack Maunder is a possibility, although I think his Exeter colleague Stuart Townsend is the bigger talent, although Wasps’ Dan Robson could be set for a late career surge. For Ireland, there is a veritable chasm created in Murray’s wake and it will be up to either Luke McGrath or Kieran Marmion to fill it.
At fly-half, both Owen Farrell and George Ford will be approaching their prime in 2021, but will likely have to battle each other for the England shirt in the meantime. Dan Biggar will be thirty-one in 2021, but his experience would count in his favour and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he filled the third spot in the position. Finn Russell needs to cut out the inconsistencies in his game, but is definitely in the mix. The other two leading contenders are the Irish pair of Paddy Jackson and Joey Carbery. I’m not convinced Jackson can improve to the extent required and Carbery may jump ahead of him in the intervening years. Mick Cleary believes Carbery could also be an option at full-back. The options at centre also look a little sparse with Jared Payne and Ben Te’o unlikely to feature again. In their stead, expect Elliot Daly and Robbie Henshaw to appear once again and Garry Ringrose and Henry Slade to compete. Scott Williams may well get his day in the sun representing Wales and Huw Jones, who could easily have made the squad had he not got injured during the Six Nations, could represent Scotland in a country he knows well.
In the back-three, England have contenders in Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and potentially Denny Solomona, whilst Simon Zebo will be looking to add to his sole Lions experience in 2013. George North will only be twenty-nine in 2021 having experienced his first Lions tour at the age of 21, although the Scarlets’ Steff Evans could pip him to a spot if he cements his place in the Welsh national team. Scottish contenders seem slightly light on the ground aside from Stuart Hogg who was so unfortunate to get injured so early in the tour. He could be joined at full back by Liam Williams and/or Leigh Halfpenny once again, although Halfpenny will be thirty-two at the time. Tiernan O’Halloran is an outside bet for Irish representation whilst a fog of mystery surrounds Mike Brown’s successor for England. Anthony Watson could be utilised as a specialist full-back or Jonny May?
The Longer View
Full Back for England? Hooker for Ireland? Second-rows for Wales? Wingers for Scotland? Staring into the future is a fraught exercise based on guesswork and subjective assumptions, but there are positions where each of the home nations will need to gain resolution, if not improvement in their squad selection. For the English, the positions of fly-half, second-row and prop appear strong for years to come, but with Mike Brown, Ben Youngs and Danny Care approaching retirement age, there are openings at full-back and scrum-half. As discussed briefly above, both Anthony Watson and Jonny May have played full-back at times during their careers, but neither are expert full-backs, particularly in regard of their kicking ability. The other likely options appear to be the Saracens duo of Max Malins and Nathan Earle. Malins was part of the England team who came second in this year’s U20 World Cup whereas Earle played for England against the Barbarians in May on the wing. At scrum-half, I think Stuart Townsend has the maturity of a man twice his age.
The Irish have major issues at hooker. With Rory Best on the verge of retirement and Sean Cronin already thirty-one, the options look sparse. For this summer’s tour to Japan, Joe Schmidt selected Dave Heffernan, Niall Scannell and James Tracy, none of whom has more than seven international caps and Tracy, the most experienced, only has one full year of international experience under his belt. Ireland will likely continue with Best and Cronin in the short-term, but eventually, new blood will be required. The Welsh have a similar issue at second-row. With Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris ageing, players such as Jake Ball, Cory Hill and Rory Thornton need to step up if the Welsh are to achieve Six Nations success once again. The issue isn’t helped by the Welsh Regions’ appalling record in European competition and so it could benefit players like Hill to move to England or France in the short-term.
Finally we have Scotland. The Scots look particularly bare at Number Eight, Wing and Flank going forward with Seymour and Maitland ageing and the likes of Rob Harley and Ryan Wilson unable to make the grade. There are deeper issues in Scottish Rugby that have been addressed in far greater depth than can be here, but suffice to say that the Scots would hugely benefit from a crop of dynamic back-row forwards and youthful energy close to the touchline. And another hooker wouldn’t go a miss either. The Scots finished fifth at this year’s U20 World Cup with Robbie Nairn and Darcy Graham scoring against Wales and Australia, but whether they can be effectively integrated into the national team is yet to be seen.
My team for 2021