Tasked with selecting his Lions starting line-up as if the series against South Africa was starting tomorrow, former Ireland prop Paul Wallace has filled his team with Englishmen.
Wallace, who started all three tests in the 2-1 series win in South Africa in 1997, has elected to go for an all-Red Rose front row of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler.
Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones pack down behind them in the second row, while England duo Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola are joined in the back row by Irish blindside Peter O’Mahony.
An all-Celtic half pairing of Wales scrum-half Gareth Davies and Scottish magician Finn Russell has been selected to feed the centres, England’s Owen Farrell and Ireland’s Garry Ringrose.
There are a pair of English wings in Jonny May and Elliot Daly, while Wales’ Liam Williams gets the nod at full-back.
“There are only about four or five players who are bolted on, and like any good Lions tour the secret is to keep it (selection) open and have competition for places,” Wallace commented.
“Between the squad being selected and [the] first get together in camp and the first test, you don’t want anybody to be at ease.
“The sign of a good Lions starting XV is one that is well shy of predictions like mine!”
Following a blockbuster weekend of rugby, we’ve seen a few changes to some Lions XVs— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) December 28, 2020
Here are @hjacksonjames, @ruaridhcameron and @learyfella’s offerings, do you agree?
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1 Mako Vunipola (England)
Rory Sutherland and Cian Healy provide good competition but, for me, Mako gets in because of what he adds around the park on top of his scrummaging, which I think is very good and a bit under-rated. His hands are just so good for such a big man, and he can run over you and around you when he chooses to take the opposition on with ball in hand.
2 Jamie George (England)
South Africa will look to play a slow, controlled game, a war of attrition like they did in the World Cup. So I think having the likes of Jamie with his size and scrummaging ability will help to combat that. Also, his form was very good in the Autumn Nations Cup.
Stuart McInally would be a good option to unleash off the bench if they do get to play on the hard surfaces in South Africa. He could be as effective as someone like Barry Williams was, back in my day, once it gets a bit looser.
3 Kyle Sinckler (England)
I think the Lions will want to play with a lot of tempo and having Sinckler in the team would only add considerably to what is a very good footballing front row. Tadhg Furlong hasn’t played for a long time and his form wasn’t great before that, but Zander Fagerson has come on a lot and could throw down a challenge.
4 Maro Itoje (England)
He possesses all the ability in the world and is one of a handful of players who you’d imagine would be in the team come what may. If it was up to me, he’d be in the second row not as a blindside flanker. I think he is slightly better in that position at the highest level plus there are so many quality back-row options to choose from. He could always move to the back-row if the need arises.
5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
A big player and a big leader who has been there and done it. Jones is a tough guy and you need tough guys when you play South Africa. For me, he should be the tour captain. The 40-50 minutes you’ll get out of him nowadays is still enough for him to warrant a starting place ahead of someone like James Ryan.
6 Peter O’Mahony (Ireland)
He had a dip in form but he seems to be getting back to the player we know he can be. He is probably the best back-row lineout player in world rugby, he is really good at getting up in the air and attacking opposition ball, and is immensely physical and that gets him my vote over someone like Justin Tipuric.
7 Sam Underhill (England)
There’s nothing to choose between Sam Underhill and Tom Curry; I think Eddie Jones even struggles to differentiate them. I’d be tempted to play both other than for the fact you need another lineout option. Underhill is everything you want in a seven: he can carry, he is a brilliant and fearless tackler and he is a real nuisance over the ball with his low centre of gravity.
8 Billy Vunipola (England)
If he is fit, and I mean, fit, fit – depending on the amount of quality rugby he gets in before then – he’d be my pick. Vunipola has plenty of credit in the bank and his physicality will be invaluable against the South Africans. Billy is better when Mako is in the same team so I’d pick them both as a double threat. When Billy doesn’t have Mako there, he is far easier to ‘double team’ and it is easier to target him.
A @springboks player whose great grandfather was a Lion!— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) December 24, 2020
We sent Lion #265 John Hodgson's Lions cap to @JesseKriel15 and his family.
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9 Gareth Davies (Wales)
I love the threat he brings at the base with his pace and speed off the mark, although Tomos Williams is also going well and Rhys Webb is back in the mix again.
One thing you have to say for the Welsh scrum-halves is that they are playing behind a pack that hasn’t really been going well for the last year and have still kept their standards high. Behind a Lions pack, they will be even better.
Elsewhere, I think Conor Murray’s distribution has got too slow and he is under pressure for his Ireland place. Ben Youngs is another to consider, though, as he has started hitting form again.
10 Finn Russell (Scotland)
If the Lions want to play a high-tempo game Russell is the 10 best suited to that. His vision for space and his distribution stands him apart from most fly-halves and he is playing with real confidence at the moment, which is crucial for a player of his ilk who likes to push the boundaries of what is possible.
11 Jonny May (England)
Jonny is the form winger in world rugby and looks a racing certainty for me. He always seems to find a way to get past the first defender if not more and his record as a finisher speaks for itself.
12 Owen Farrell (England)
I like the 10-12 double playmaker combination; I think it works well for the Lions. So I would go for Finn Russell to provide the stardust and Owen Farrell the solidity outside of him. His defence is right up there and he provides leadership and has tonnes of experience, not forgetting his world-class goal-kicking. He is the full package is Farrell.
13 Garry Ringrose (Ireland)
A very classy player who can step into the tightest of spaces. With the quality of the players around him, he should get lots of opportunities to shine. He rarely makes a mistake and has got all the skills. Ringrose is not small but he’s no giant in the modern game, yet physically you never see him shirk a tackle. He is exceptional in the defensive 13 channel, the best I’ve seen since Brian O’Driscoll.
14 Elliot Daly (England)
Josh Adams has to be considered but I think Daly would work well with the rest of the outside backs I’ve chosen and he also possesses a monster boot which could be invaluable at crucial moments in matches. At altitude, he’d back himself to knock penalties over from his own 10-metre line.
15 Liam Williams (Wales)
Right now, you’d be more inclined to go with a fit Stuart Hogg. But he’s injured at the moment and I just think Williams, who is just as good a running threat, is the safer pair of hands in that he makes fewer potentially costly errors. Hogg had a howler dropping the ball against Ireland and also, in terms of intensity, I think Williams brings a little bit more to the table.