The Lions tour of South Africa this year might not happen. But let’s pretend it will, because there is nothing better in rugby union than a Lions tour.
Warren Gatland makes his bid for a triple Lions crown against the dormant but ever dangerous Springboks.
He does not strike the casual observer as a wishful thinker, so he will not be planning to face a weaker version of the Boks than his Welsh team took down to the wire in the last World Cup.
Gatland will plan for the best version Rassie Erasmus and his brains trust can conjure, rust and all.
He has his coaches now. English coaches are banished off of a historically poor Six Nations display. His attack and defence coaches are drawn from the Scottish national team. His kicking guru is a trusty sidekick from Wales.
Apparently, he had all his coaches send him their 36-man squads, and the overlap was only 22 or so. Perhaps Gregor Townsend is fighting in his lads’ corner. Or they are having the old form-versus-credit-versus-hybrid-thereof debate.
Of course, selection at this level stems from a doctrine first. What is the best way to beat the Boks at home, with two Tests at altitude, and even the one at sea level on a new fast track not dewy old Newlands?
Japan 2019 was the last benchmark to see how the Home Nations coped with lightning-quick turf. The Six Nations fields do not resemble bone-hard Ellis Park or the two football fields set to host the other Test matches.
Ireland, in particular, did not look happy on the speedways of Japan. They have never looked that joyful on the High Veld, either. However, I can see three of the Lions’ locks being Irish.
Scotland looks set to be the beneficiary of England’s slide, but not necessarily in the starting XV.
Wales has fared the best against South Africa in recent years, even if the record is a bit deceptive. The wins have come for the most part in Cardiff, in the last Test of the Boks’ season, often shorn of British-based players. In South Africa, or at World Cups, it has been a case of heartbreak for Gatland’s Wales.
But that style – the quick breakdown artists, stingy defence, intelligent kicking, and percentage footy – is surely the path. The only other way is the pure All Blacks way, and that is much more difficult to achieve in a scratch team.
This philosophy will probably guide selection. Gatland will be trying to think ‘if I played the same semi-final, who could I add to my Welsh team to take us over the top?’
I came up with 44 men who could stake a claim to make it on tour. So it is a matter of cutting the unlucky eight, to fit the rules.
The fullbacks are the least worry. Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams will be on the plane, and no doubt both in the first Test 23. Personally, I rate Williams higher than Hogg, because he is more nimble and a better tackler, and that may be required to hold out quicksilver Boks like Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi.
Speaking of wings, I would take all four of these lads: Josh Adams, Anthony Watson, Jonny May and Elliot Daly. Duhan van der Merwe is almost impossible to tackle one-on-one, but he is like a battleship turning on defence.
Louis Rees-Zammit is the quickest, but isn’t ready to play at Ellis Park, looking into the sun, waiting for bombs to land. Adams is so dependable. Watson is versatile. Daly is a distance kicker. May chases forever and will never quit.
I have seven centres listed as possible, and I need to cut three.
Jon Davies (12 or 13), Robbie Henshaw, and George North (who looked a true 13) seem locked in, with the Irishman the best back of 2021.
So the contest for the fourth spot is between Chris Harris, Garry Ringrose, Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi. Yes, Townsend admitted Tuilagi is in the picture. I see why. He is exactly what is needed versus Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am: force them to be honest in defence.
Flyhalves on fast sunny tracks cannot include aged, fragile Johnny Sexton. So it’s Owen Farrell (a ten and only a 12 situationally), Finn Russell and the dependable Dan Biggar, for me.
The scrumhalf position is a problem for these Lions. Conor Murray may just be the best option, but what an uninspiring pick to front the dynamic Faf de Klerk. Back-ups could be Ali Price (charge-down risk), Gareth Davies (not always a smart player), Ben Youngs (has never enjoyed playing the Boks), and Tomos Williams. I could go with Price and Williams.
Props drop like flies on tour so six are needed. Rory Sutherland, Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler and Wyn Jones seems safely on. Two of these three need to be added then: Joe Marler (for his scrum prowess), Andrew Porter and Mako Vunipola. Marler surely has to go: he is the only one who stood up in the 2019 final. And Vunipola has to be selected for his carries.
At hooker, George Turner will make it hard. If he does not make it, it will be Ken Owens, Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie. I don’t think he will make it, but Turner’s lineout throwing is superb – a crucial item against the Boks.
At lock, it becomes clear: Alun Wyn Jones, the captain if fit, with James Ryan. Others will be Maro Itoje (at five or six), Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne (also an option at six).
The most difficult choices come in the loose forwards. Toby Faletau is the only certainty. He is the best forward in the Lions’ pack. I was highly impressed by Matt Fagerson of Scotland, too. He can make the gain line, and has great ball security. But I am not sure he is needed if one of the flanks can play eight, too.
So CJ Stander must be considered as a utility loosie. Josh Navidi is a must for me. He is the type of forward who troubles the Boks. Justin Tipuric and Tom Curry are also in the conversation, particularly given Itoje and Beirne can play blindside. Hamish Watson, the best player in the Six Nations, may be an unlucky boy.
Projected Lions squad
Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams, Josh Adams, Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Elliot Daly, Jon Davies, Robbie Henshaw, George North, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Finn Russell, Dan Biggar, Conor Murray, Gareth Price, Tomos Williams, Wyn Jones, Rory Sutherland, Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler, Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler, Ken Owens, Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Tom Curry, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau, CJ Stander and Matt Fagerson (the bolter).