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The selection trap the British and Irish Lions must avoid

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Roar Guru
18th April, 2021
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This British and Irish Lions tour year provides some real conundrums for the travelling coach, who needs to decide on players with either history or form.

It’s a question of who has best adjusted to the new normal of faster international football. Does he select a side for his game plan or with the strengths of the hosts in mind?

South Africa is a side against which you must be sure to negate their key strengths before focusing on your areas to attack. Refer to the 2019 Rugby World Cup final as the most recent evidence.

The trap is set by the British and Irish rugby media, who produce selections where their national favourites are carved in stone, but the recent stats tell you such selections would play directly into the Springboks’ hands.

This year the ubiquitous selections look less supported than for most tours.

South Africa will not bring surprise no matter their lack of preparation. They will come armed with an efficient defence and set piece-based structure. They will happily play without the ball, and they will rely on forcing errors to build the scoreboard by both boot and a rapier-like counterattack.


It is no coincidence that Springboks nemesis New Zealand are the only side to have twice pushed South Africa into penalty debt in the last dozen matches they’ve played, therefore conceding neither penalty goals nor ground with regularity.

If the pillars of Test match rugby are set-piece parity, a low error/penalty count and the ability to win the breakdown and the gain-line battle, then there is a multiplier in these factors when playing South Africa on their own patch. Selections that do not cover these criteria risk serious exposure.

This article looks at selections in three key positions and the reasons coach Warren Gatland needs to ignore the fanboy calls and ruthlessly focus on actual game time outcomes in these key areas.

Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach looks on

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

1. Locks
Fall behind in the physical battle and kiss goodbye the series.

The first agenda item is to select one slab of granite Alun Wyn Jones is captain and starting lock.

Hands up all those who wrote off this warrior before a ball was kicked this year. We know who you are.

Of the key contenders for the second row, Jones’s form and numbers for the Six Nations were off the charts. His work rate is through the roof, he has high effort and efficiency numbers and he’s rock at both scrum time and lineout.


Jone is the easiest selection of the XV.

You would then go some distance to find a Lions selection that does not include Maro Itoje over the claims of other contenders James Ryan, Iain Henderson and Jonny Gray. Tadhg Beirne is selected at No. 6 in my side and so is not considered here.

But Itoje’s form is average, with a high net error count dominated by penalties and turnovers conceded. These are things you can’t do against South Africa. He has also shown no adjustment to the new law directives, and his comparatively poor work rate does little to justify those calls.

Iain Henderson gets my nod. A low error count and ability to win the ball back mean that he actually provides net possession gains, which will be critical. If there are three things from Ireland that you would want to incorporate into this Lions side, it would be the fastest ruck ball speed, the best defensive lineout and a genuine ability to turn the ball over.

Henderson gets my nod on all counts, and his combination with Beirne will be a significant differentiator at ruck time.

Player Mins TM MT Tack% BH Errors Net Error CA MC
Jones 365 75 4 0.95 43 10 -8 34 121
Average 4.8 min 8.5 min 10.7 min 3.55m
Henderson 325 41 7 0.85 50 8 3 33 126
Averages 7.9 min 6.5 min 9.8 min 3.8 m
Itoje 400 58 5 0.92 35 17 -10 25 88
Averages 7.0 min 6.5 min 16 mins 3.5m

Openside flanker
Balance is the key to any back row, and it’s even more important when selecting players who do not always play together. To that end, it’s best to identify those in the Nos. 6 and 8 shirts.

Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt aside, there were two standout loosies in the competition: Tadhg Beirne is the selection at No. 7 and Taulupe Faletau is at No. 8. We can expect high action, all-round games from both and tough hard working blokes.


How does one complement this excellent duo? Let’s deal with the easiest omission and another of the ubiquitous selections.

Tom Curry certainly worked hard for an inefficient England that simply did not adjust to the new directives, but when one excludes the Italians he finished second in the missed tackle count and had a single turnover across all games – and that one turnover on his own line against France could easily have been a penalty against and a card – coupled with a high error rate.

His best attribute – slowing ruck ball – is seriously diminished by the new refereeing of the breakdown.

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It’s really tough to go past Hamish Watson, the player of the tournament, for the No. 7 jersey, but that’s exactly my call, and it has nothing to do with his size.

I selected Justin Tipuric. He has been a tackling machine, which is certainly going to be needed, and his loose forward partners both have the ability to carry the ball at the edges of the Springboks pack. This needs to be supported with offensive ruck work.

This feels like betraying a family secret, but if there is a single reason the All Blacks have such a stellar record against South Africa, it is their ability to win the breakdown and then use that turnover ball quickly to peel that Bokke loose forward trio away from their tight five and attack back towards the weakened seams down the blindside before using width.

Beirne and Falatau will be key in going after those gaps, and someone needs to be minding the back door if something goes awry. Tipuric’s high work rate and tackle efficiency win the jersey for mine.

Mins TM MT Tack% BH Errors Net Error CA MC
Tipuric 400 86 2 97% 60 4 0 23 22
Averages 4.65 min 6.6 min 17.5 min 0
Curry 400 63 11 85% 51 14 -13 41 217
Averages 6.3 min 8 min 9.75 min 5.3 m
Watson 386 55 0 100% 81 4 0 67 321
Averages 7.0 min 4.75 min 5.75 min 4.8m

The most unanimous and baffling media selection is that most are punting – pun intended – for Conor Murray at halfback on the back of, well, little evidence.

The change in officiating directives is moving the emphasis of the game backwards down the field. The dominance of locks will reduce and the combination of Nos. 7-8-9 is of growing prominence. While Andre Dupont did get somewhat found out in his core skills in the championship minutes of games, his number of involvements and his running at increasingly fractured defensive lines that struggle to reform against quick ruck speed gave a real look into where the game is going.

Dupont is included here for comparison. His number of involvements and the number of points scoring involvements were exceptional.


Tomorrow’s halfback is going to need to be able to run and create way more than in recent years as well as move the ball quickly away from contact areas.

Conor Murray’s Six Nation minutes were limited, but his error counts are too high, his run numbers too low and his point assist numbers non-existent. To be fair, he didn’t play a lot of minutes in the Six Nations, so I did look at a couple of Munster games, including the Pro 14 final, and my conclusion is that Craig Casey is quite good.

Before the tournament I suspected a Welsh halfback would be the way to go, with an argument to be made that two to three of the best five halfbacks in the competition are Welsh, but it’s hard to justify that based on the games played.

If we are looking for a low error count halfback who is a threat with ball in hand, the surprise selection is Jamison Gibson-Park, but not out of stellar field, it must be said. He had a good tournament, plays at a nice tempo, is a quick enough pass and is backed up by the numbers, especially the low error count.

Mins TM MT Tck % T/TA Errors CA MC
Du Pont 363 36 10 78% 8 21 38 233
Averages 6 min 45 min 17 min 9 min 6 m
Gibson-Park 231 13 5 72% 2 7 19 114
Averages 17 min 115 min 33 min 12 min 6 m
Price 335 21 2 91% 3 16 21 75
Averages 16 min 111 min 21 min 16 min 3.4 m
Davies 205 16 9 70% 2 18 9 30
Averages 13 min 103 min 11 min 23 min 3.3 m
Murray 149 8 2 80% 0 11 5 14
Averages 18 min duck egg 13 min 29 min 2.8 m
Youngs 331 13 7 65% 2 20 14 24
Averages 25 min 150 min 16 min 24 min 2.4 m

Finally, if I am allowed one totally left-field selection, it would be WP Nel as starting tighthead.

He’s still the best scrummaging tighthead prop in World Rugby. You get little else from him, but who cares.

It matters little if he gets dragged after half an hour. You cannot give up any advantage to the South African eight. Nel plugs a very real risk to the opening stanza of any South African Test.

I have no doubt Gatland has the fortitude for big calls – he’s has done it before – but has he got it for one more round?