In the aftermath of Warren Gatland’s 2021 British and Irish Lions squad announcement on Thursday, we look at the winners and losers from the forward selections…
Winners: Mako Vunipola, Rory Sutherland
The form of Wales’ Wyn Jones during the 2021 Six Nations meant he was in the driving seat for loosehead selection, but who would join him was another matter.
Vunipola, although heavily anticipated to tour due to his experience and quality, is a ‘winner’ in the sense that Saracens’ relegation to the Championship and England’s poor 2021 Six Nations campaign has not wrecked his chances.
The prop will need to make sure he peaks in terms of fitness and performance to challenge the Boks, however, as he was tormented at scrum-time in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. He was also hooked at half-time vs Ireland in March after leaking penalties at the scrum. Improvements are needed for sure.
The other big winner at loosehead is Scotland’s Sutherland, who like Jones will be appearing on his maiden Lions tour. The 27-year-old has made a remarkable recovery from a gruesome adductor injury, and been one of the top performing props over the last couple of years.
He is currently injured with a shoulder complaint, however, and so when taking that into account and also the calibre of player he has seen off to make the squad, he is a big winner.
Losers: Ellis Genge, Cian Healy, Joe Marler
There are three major losers at loosehead. Leicester’s Genge was fancied by many to tour with the sort of power and grunt he can bring, but admitted himself earlier in the week that he had received no email correspondence.
When it became clear Genge was out of the picture, most plumped for Leinster and Ireland’s experienced campaigner and 2013 Lion Healy to be included, but the 34-year-old has missed out too despite Ireland beating Scotland and England in the 2021 Six Nations.
With all the talk of bolters, Harlequins’ Marler was another player widely mentioned, with his superior scrummaging ability to Vunipola a potential point of difference. Like Genge, he was not included on an email list of over 50 players earlier in the week, though.
Winner: Zander Fagerson
The Test Lion four years ago at tighthead was Ireland’s exceptional Tadhg Furlong, and there was little doubt he would make the squad.
Furlong’s injuries over the last couple of years have also opened the door for compatriot Andrew Porter to show what he can do at Test level, and as such he was widely tipped to make the squad too.
The real winner at tighthead is Scotland’s Fagerson. For most people, the Glasgow Warrior was fifth or sixth choice to tour, but he has seen off some impressive performers to squeeze into Gatland’s squad. Whether he will get near a Test place is another question.
Losers: Kyle Sinckler, Tomas Francis
Perhaps the shock of the squad was the omission of England and Bristol tighthead Sinckler.
The 28-year-old toured as a Lion to New Zealand four years ago, coming off the bench in all three Tests, while his form at the World Cup in 2019 was up there with the best players in the whole tournament.
Expected to challenge Furlong for a Test place, Sinckler has missed out altogether. A hot-head at times on the pitch, perhaps it is for this reason Gatland has left him behind? Either way, his supreme work-rate and ball-carrying, as well as his strong scrummaging, will be sorely missed.
The other loser at tighthead is Wales’ Francis. A mainstay of the Six Nations title-winning side of 2021, Francis broke records with the sort of ruck work he was doing. With Sinckler left out, most would have then picked Francis ahead of Fagerson, but the Lions coaching staff have seen different.
Winners: Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie
Wales’ ‘Mr Consistency’ in Ken Owens was an expected selection, and while England may have finished fifth in the 2021 Six Nations, they fill both of the other hooker spots.
Saracens’ George was the Lions Test hooker for all three Tests in 2017, but, in tandem with his club’s relegation to the Championship, he has struggled for form in an England jersey. As such, he is a big winner to have been selected, largely based off credit in the bank it seems.
Exeter’s Cowan-Dickie has been one of the premier hookers at club level for a couple of seasons, but before 2021 had failed to start a Six Nations Test.
So far, he has failed to completely wrestle the No 2 shirt off George, starting three of the five 2021 Six Nations games, but that jersey-wrestle has not stopped him making a first Lions squad.
Losers: Ronan Kelleher, Rob Herring, George Turner
Ireland may have convincingly beaten England back in March, but neither of their hookers have made the cut.
Leinster’s Kelleher, in particular, was fancied as a bolter, such are his powerful qualities, but the tour seems to have come just too soon for the 23-year-old, while Herring is unfortunate to miss out based on his displays.
A third loser at hooker is Scotland’s Turner, who was superb as the Scots secured a first victory over England at Twickenham since 1983 in February.
Turner also started as Scotland won in Paris, but his lineout throwing malfunctioned, as it did badly in defeat to Ireland at Murrayfield.
Winners: Jonny Hill, Courtney Lawes
In the second row, Gatland named Alun Wyn Jones as his skipper, as well as England’s Maro Itoje and Ireland’s Iain Henderson – both of whom were hotly tipped to make it.
One player who had barely been spoken about as a potential selection was Exeter and England lock Hill, however, particularly after England’s disastrous 2021 and the Chiefs exiting Europe at the quarter-final stage at home. Yet, the 26-year-old is on the plane, with his weight and set-piece solidity crucial.
The other big winner is England’s Lawes. A Test Lion off the bench in 2017, Lawes was crucial to England’s World Cup final run in 2019 too with some outstanding performances.
The tough-tackling Saints second row has struggled with injuries in recent years, though, as ankle and pectoral complaints meant he only played twice in 2021 at Test level, which seemed likely to keep him out of the running. Despite his injuries, Lawes has made it, and his ability to play at blindside flanker is potentially a major factor in that.
Losers: James Ryan, Jonny Gray, Joe Launchbury
Almost since the last Lions series, much of the talk around second-row pairings for the South Africa tour had centred on Itoje and Ireland’s Ryan.
The two were viewed almost as a dream combination to take on the Boks. When Alun Wyn Jones recovered from a very poor 2020 season to lead Wales to the most peculiar of Six Nations titles in 2021, such talk quietened, but nobody could have expected that Ryan would go from Test-worthy to out of a 37-man squad altogether.
The Leinster lock’s form over the last two seasons has not been nearly as impactful as the two campaigns before that, but his omission still comes as a massive surprise.
Scotland’s Gray is another big loser in the second-row stakes, particularly as on this tour, eight of his compatriots have made the cut, unlike in previous years when Scottish representation was extremely low. It is clear at this stage that Gatland is not an admirer of what the bulky lock forward can bring.
And finally, England’s Launchbury. Having missed out in 2013 and 2017, the Wasps skipper would have been more hopeful this time around, particularly after dominating an England place in the autumn of 2020.
A cruel ACL knee injury took any potential for Launchbury to tour away, however, and when taking into consideration Hill’s selection – a very similar type of tight lock forward – there is a high degree of chance the Wasps man would have been named on Thursday.
Winners: Sam Simmonds, Jack Conan, Hamish Watson
Undoubtedly the most competitive area to break into for the Lions, there are top-class back-row options in abundance for Gatland and co to select.
Wales pair Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric, as well as England’s Tom Curry, had seemingly booked their spots a while back, such has been their form.
The most high-profile ‘winner’ of perhaps the entire squad is Exeter back-row Simmonds. The dynamic forward has not played Test rugby for England for three-and-a-half years (March 2018), and, in fact, has not even made an international squad.
For whatever reason, Eddie Jones has repeatedly ignored Simmonds, whose feats at club level have fired Exeter to a European Cup and Premiership double in 2020, Premiership finals in 2019 and 2018, the European player of the year award last season, and current Premiership top tryscorer (14 tries, six more than the next most). Gatland says the hard-track pitches in South Africa meant Simmonds’ pace could not be ignored.
Another big winner in the back row and, really, another bolter, is Leinster and Ireland’s Conan. Having only made his first start for Ireland in 18 months vs England in March – a series of injuries and the form of others ahead of him in green keeping him out – the 28-year-old seems to have been picked largely based off that one impressive display.
There was not a single prospective Lions squad circulated that contained Conan’s name, and the back row has it all to do to trouble the Test scene now.
And finally Scotland’s Watson. A winner in the sense that the natural openside can feel huge relief that his Six Nations efforts – named 2021’s player of the championship no less – have not all been for nothing, despite the absurd opinions out there that he would be “too light or small” to face the Boks.
Losers: Josh Navidi, CJ Stander, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola
Speak to those in Wales, and they are shocked Navidi has not been chosen. Speak to those in Ireland, and there is large surprise Stander has suffered the same fate.
Navidi seemed a perfect fit for the hard-working blindside flanker Gatland so regularly employs, while Stander, as a tough-carrying No 8 or blindside, will be devastated to miss out ahead of his impending retirement at the age of just 31. All the more so for Stander as he has lost out to international team-mate Conan, despite never losing his place to him for Ireland.
Another somewhat unexpected omission from the panel is England openside Underhill, whose utterly tremendous 2019 and 2020 form has not been enough to override his injury-plagued 2021.
And finally No 8 Vunipola. His injury withdrawal due to a shoulder issue four years ago was met with huge concern and disappointment, but his form has steadily declined over the period since, to the point at which a few saw his absence in 2021 coming. It has been some fall from grace for the England man, though.
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