Current Lions XV pecking order does not look good for Irish stars
It is looking close to an English white-wash when it comes to the Lions' strongest Test XV.
The sight of fans returning to stadiums in the UK, over the weekend, will have heartened many, including those pining for the 2021 British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa. And, right now, it is looking as though English players will dominate the Lions' Test team, next summer.
South African sport has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many leagues and competitions either cancelled or played behind closed doors. The world champion Springboks have not played a competitive match since winning the World Cup, in Japan, last November.
"They’ll have a play games," former Lions captain Paul O'Connell recently told us. "You’d imagine South Africa will have arrange some kind of fixtures, some kind of matches where they try and play some shape of where they’re trying to go. It’s going to be very hard to tell and very hard to prepare now for the Lions."
On the latest House of Rugby Ireland episode [listen from 11:00 below], former Springbok blindside Schalk Burger spoke about how the Lions Test Series is something all players from his country yearn to be part of.
"We all remember watching in the Lions 1997," said Schalk Burger.
"I think all of us can remember Scott Gibbs bouncing Os Du Randt – I think it was in Durban – and the Boks losing. 12 years later, we get our opportunity. You know, it’s more rare for us to play the Lions than it is for us to play in a World Cup. It’s one of those moments that’s so special."
Ugo Monye, another recent House of Rugby guest and one that played for the Lions against South Africa in 2009, believes at least six of the current England pack will be Test starters next summer. On current form, we would argue that number could be seven (and Joe Launchbury with the right to be ticked off).
Over in Wales, some believe Ireland could have as many as four Test starters, but we are not quite so optimistic.
Going off the back of the Guinness Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup games of the past seven weeks, and leaning on past Warren Gatland selections, this is the Lions XV pecking order we have devised:
Our Lions XV (back-up option in brackets)
15. Elliot Daly (Stuart Hogg)
14. Anthony Watson (Liam Williams)
13. Garry Ringrose (Jonathan Davies)
12. Manu Tuilagi (Henry Slade)
11. Jonny May (James Lowe)
10. Owen Farrell (Johnny Sexton)
9. Conor Murray (Rhys Webb)
1. Mako Vunipola (Rory Sutherland)
2. Jamie George (Ken Owens)
3. Kyle Sinckler (Tadhg Furlong)
4. Maro Itoje (Jonny Gray)
5. James Ryan (Alun Wyn Jones)
6. Tom Curry (Caelan Doris)
7. Sam Underhill (Justin Tipuric)
8. Billy Vunipola (Toby Faletau)
Currently just three Irish starters - Garry Ringrose, Conor Murray and James Ryan - but still plenty of time for the likes of Tadhg Furlong, Caelan Doris, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton, Dan Leavy and more to press their case in the 2021 Guinness Six Nations and Champions Cup.
We get the feeling that Murray is still a big favourite of Gatland, having impressed on 2013 and 2017 tours, but he will need a strong Six Nations to convince the Kiwi he is the man for the job. CJ Stander, his Munster teammate, will need to rediscover his best form at Test level if he is to return to his homeland as a British & Irish Lion.
Gatland has spoken of being more than open to the idea of bringing in players to his Lions squad that are performing well for clubs in European games but are not getting selected for their countries.
That leaves the door open to the Simmonds brothers from Exeter, Joe and Sam, as well as the versatile Alex Goode, lock George Kruis and former Munster star Simon Zebo.
The Guinness Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup have thrown up leading candidates and new contenders for Test spots, but the jerseys will truly be won over the next four and a half months, in the toughest of conditions and arenas.
WATCH HOUSE OF RUGBY IRELAND HERE:
LISTEN TO HOUSE OF RUGBY IRELAND: https://playpodca.st/house-of-rugby-ie
Season 3 has returned with Ian Madigan & Eimear Considine as hosts, and has already featured interviews with Brian O'Driscoll, Nigel Owens, Sean Cronin, Shane Williams, Mike Brown, CJ Stander, Ugo Monye, Sene Naoupu, Schalk Burger and Dan Leo.