“It’s definitely in the back of our minds somewhere.”
Last November, British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland let it be known that club form, and European form, would be important factors in selecting his squad for the 2021 tour.
While he is open to selecting those not picked by their countries, he has been keenly observing the 2021 Six Nations. Many of those that perform well in this championship will make the plane [or tour bus, if the UK hosts South Africa] this summer.
Ireland captain Johnny Sexton was asked how much the Lions squad was on the minds of his teammates, and admitted it was in there somewhere. By finishing the championship on a high, Ireland would boost confidence, the IRFU coffers and boost the squad selections chances of their players.
Springboks star Pieter-Steph du Toit had an interesting take, during his House of Rugby Ireland interview [LISTEN from 11:30 below], when asked for the Lions players he would be wary of.Maro Itoje, who was previously tipped for Lions captaincy, goes on the charge against New Zealand in the World Cup Final. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
“I remember there was talk about the Lions a while ago,” du Toit recalls. “It wasn’t that long after we won the World Cup.
“Someone said, ‘Listen, a lot of these English guys are going to be in the Lions side as well, and they will definitely be motivated a lot. They’ll have something to prove and will be out to get you’.”
England’s players went on to win the 2020 Six Nations and the one-off Autumn Nations Cup, but they are struggling this year and have already ceded their title after losing two out of their first three games.
“That’s the problem with these international set-ups,” notes du Toit. “Everyone is so extremely fit, strong and well-drilled. It means you can’t just sit back and say, ‘You’ve got to watch out for this guy. He’s going to be a game-breaker’.”
Du Toit makes a good point. Had South Africa been solely focused on facing an England-heavy Lions XV, this summer, the might have been caught out by the lads now making big impacts for the likes of Wales and Scotland. Indeed, Maro Itoje’s case for Lions captaincy has been damaged in recent weeks and Alun Wyn Jones of Wales is back in the picture.
Back in November, Ugo Monye told House of Rugby he would pick six England forwards for his starting Lions pack while arguing that Sam Underhill had a good case for inclusion at openside. Of all those players mentioned, only Tom Curry and Kyle Sinckler have performed close to their usual, high levels.Sam Warburton, left, and Jonathan Sexton of the British & Irish Lions, pictured at Eden Park in 2017. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
With the likes of Dan Biggar and Finn Russell going well in the Six Nations, and Owen Farrell likely to make the Lions travelling squad, Johnny Sexton may find himself in a tough race to make the final cut.
“[The Lions] is not at the forefront of our thoughts,” said the Ireland captain, “because even if it wasn’t a Lions year we’d still be going out to win the game, of course, and to put our best foot forward.
“But in the back of your mind, you know the next two are pretty important games in terms of those Lions selections.
“It will help the Irish cause if we can pick up a couple of wins, it will help get more numbers on the plane and that’s ultimately what we want – we want to get as many Irish people on that trip as possible. It’s definitely in the back of our minds somewhere.”
Ireland have Scotland away, first, before taking on England at the Aviva Stadium on March 20. They are two games that Warren Gatland will be watching very closely.