There were several great summers of sport in the previous decade. The London Olympics of 2012 followed by the “Miracle of Medina”, Andy Murray winning Wimbledon and Chris Frome winning the Tour de France in 2013, the treasured moments in pubs watching England progress to the semi finals of the World Cup in 2018, the “Greatest day in British sporting history” on the 14th July 2019 when England claimed the ODI world cup at the same time as one of the greatest Wimbledon finals and Lewis Hamilton winning the British Grand Prix. Unfortunately, it is looking very likely there will be no memorable sporting summer to begin this decade but fear not! The summer of 2021 is shaping up to be one of those special summers of endless entertainment as the Tokyo Olympics and Euros have been postponed. Of course, for all rugby lovers, the dates circled on the calendar are the Lions tour of South Africa beginning with a clash against the DHL Stormers in Cape Town on the 3rd July 2021.
The Lions is the best players of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales thrown together every four years to produce a team of exceptional talent. It is the crème de la creme of the Northern hemisphere, apart from a few Frenchies, against the incredibly challenging opposition of the Southern Hemisphere. It removes boundaries between fans and players and everyone is willing to forgive the English to travel to the opposite side of the world as a sea of red to support the Lions. My obsession with the Lions began with listening to my grandfather talk about the famous tour of New Zealand in 1971 which was won due to the brilliance of the Welsh half back pairing of Gareth Edwards and Barry “King” John. There was the infamous 99 call at the “Battle of Boet Erasmus” from the 1974 tour of South Africa with the touring party going 22 games unbeaten under Lions legend Willie John McBride. The documentary Living with Lions following the 1997 tour provided incredible behind the scenes access to the dressing room and lives of the players and staff during the tour. In particular, the personalities of players such as Doddie Weir, who is sadly battling MND, really brought the fans closer to everyone involved. The last trip to South Africa was in 2009 where the Lions came agonizingly close to taking the test series to the final match and icons of the game such as Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts exemplified a world class test pairing. The first series I dedicated to watching every game was in 2013 where a strongly Welsh dominated Lions team successfully defeated the Australians in the three-test series. The 2017 tour of New Zealand was a chance to see the best of the Northern Hemisphere against the World Cup winners of 2015. The test series was summed up perfectly by Kieran Read saying to Sam Warburton “This is rugby” at the end of the thrilling third test to draw the series. The Lions produces lifelong friendship between players previously knocking the stuffing out of each other and memories unlikely to be lost for fans experiencing different cultures and nations but with the aid of a common rugby language to make them feel welcome.
South Africa is a beautiful and diverse country which every person should visit in their lifetime to see the jewel-of-a-city Cape Town or go on safari in the Kruger national park. It is of course not without its issues but the recent victory over England in the World Cup final helped the nation temporarily forget about its troubles to celebrate a captain with a difficult start in life lifting the Webb Ellis trophy. The South African’s narrowly scraped past Wales in the semi-final to then out-think and out-class the English in the final showing excellent tactical nous with a dominant forward pack with the likes of Peter Steph du Toit (World Rugby’s player of the year) and electric backs such as Cheslin Kolbe. The prospect of English and Welsh players as part of a Lions team facing the world champions again in their own backyard is an exciting prospect. They have been playing a kicking tactical game and solutions will be required to counteract their ability to control the game.
Warren Gatland is returning for third tour and is already one of the most successful coaches in Lions history. He guided the Lions to a series victory in Australia and achieved the second-best result for a Lions touring party ever against the All Blacks. He understands the culture that needs to be created and is not afraid to make the difficult choices, such as the infamous omission of Brian O’Driscoll, that he believes will win the Lions a series. He has yet to pick his assistant coaches but with Andy Farrell being appointed as Ireland’s head coach I am unsure if he will go but he has proven a valuable asset over the last two tours.
With a slightly odd Six Nations this year I am taking performances at the World Cup and domestic form into consideration as well as the few games that did showcase the players’ ability in the Six Nations. Unfortunately, due to their performances at the World Cup and the Six Nations, there maybe be more English than I would like but as Lion’s fan I want the best team on the pitch for the first test in Pretoria.
At loose head I am picking Rory Sutherland who has returned from a nasty groin injury and is being touted by many as the best scrummaging prop in the Northern Hemisphere after his performances against Tadhg Furlong and Mohamed Haouas in this year Six Nations. At hooker, I have selected Jamie George for his excellent work rate and his successful experience in the Lions test Number 2 jersey. My tighthead is going to be Kyle Sinclair whose performance in the semi-final against Australia showed his maturity and excellent technical skills around the park. This is an in-form front three that balance each other and will hopefully be able to match the South African front row.
Honourable mentions: Tadhg Furlong, Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge
Alun Wyn Jones will become the most capped player of all time on the Lion’s tour and I believe this will be his swansong. His leadership and understanding of the game make him clear choice as captain and as a “test match animal” he will rise to the occasion in South Africa. Of course, to partner him has to be Maro Itoje who has become the stand out lock in global rugby as he excels in all areas of the second row.
Honourable mentions: James Ryan
It is hard to ignore the ‘kamikaze kids’ of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry who were the stand out flankers of the World Cup, but I think Justin Tipuric’s skill set is the best of any back row in the world and with him at 7 complementing Curry at 6 they will be hard to face. At number 8 a fit Billy Vunipola is the obvious choice for any team due to his immense ball carrying ability.
Honourable mentions: Jamie Ritchie, Sam Underhill, CJ Stander, Taulupe Faletau
Number 9 is a tricky selection but Rhys Webb was Wales’s number one scrum half before his exile to France and his recent return to the team against England showed everyone his quality and ability to turn up the tempo of the game. Webb also has good experience as a scrum half for the Lions against the All Blacks. At ten Owen Farrell has the ability to front up physically and control the game which should have seen him start at fly half for the final. He is a true “test match animal” who will relish the challenge. Finn Russell will play a role in this test team because he is a player who has the ability to create and change the momentum of the game in an instant but he may have to resume playing for Scotland to be considered.
Honourable mentions: Finn Russell, Dan Biggar, Ali Price, Ben Youngs, John Cooney, Gareth
Manu Tulagi has proven time and time again that having him in your team will significantly boost your chances of winning. He was immense at the World Cup and bullied the All Blacks which is no easy feat. Jonathan Davies was the player of the tour in 2017 and was instrumental in Wales’s Grand Slam team of 2019. He offers a running and passing threat with a solid defensive ability that has been crucial in Shaun Edwards’ success over the years. These two centres will match the South Africans brutality and provide the back three plenty of holes to exploit.
Honourable mentions: Nick Tompkins, Bundee Aki , Gary Ringrose
There is plenty to pick from for the Back three with some of the best wingers in the world currently coming from the Northern Hemisphere teams. Jonny May has become world class in the last 2 years with some exceptional solo tries to his name. He is a natural finisher that will worry the South African defence. On the other wing I have put Liam Williams who is a tough competitor and a wonderful performer in a Lion’s shirt who initiated one of the best Lion’s tries ever seen in 2017. At full back Stuart Hogg’s recent performances will not have given Warren Gatland confidence where as Jordan Larmour’s rapid feet shown against Wales in the Six Nations will have caught his eye. Stuart Hogg’s kicking and defensive ability is better than the Leinsterman but as an attacking threat Jordan Larmour offers something different.
Honourable mentions: Stuart Hogg, Anthony Watson, Josh Adams, Jacob Stockdale
There is my starting XV for the first test but as shown over the years it really is a squad effort to have a successful tour with many players likely to put their hands up for selection for at least one of the three tests. The Lions tour next summer will be an unforgettable experience for all involved and as Sam Warburton says on the Lions official website “you simply have to go”.