Putting together a pack of forwards that can compete with the Springboks should be top priority for British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland ahead of their 2021 tour of South Africa, writes JOHN GOLIATH.
Eddie Jones probably still has nightmares about the Springboks’ forward assault on his England side in the World Cup final. He must wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night after witnessing the South Africans’ scrum absolutely obliterate his team, while also not even making a dent in the Boks’ defence at close quarters.
It’s also something that will give British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland sleepless nights over the next 18 months before their tour of South Africa.
Gatland knows that the Lions will have to front up physically, and at set-piece time, against a Bok pack that could be even better when June 2021 comes around. Besides loosehead Tendai Mtawarira and flank Francois Louw, the other 12 forwards who started the final or came off the bench will be available for selection.
Steven Kitshoff will seamlessly slot into the No 1 jersey, while South Africa’s loose-forwards factory remains the envy of the rugby world. So the Boks will not lose anything in terms of talent and power, while the current crop will also be about 10-12 Tests more experienced when the Lions arrive on these shores.
Gatland has got many players to choose from as he tries to build a pack that can withstand and then counter South Africa’s physicality. The best players from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales are available for selection, but will need to bring that fire otherwise the series could be one-way traffic, just like the World Cup final a few weeks ago.
It’s hard to imagine that if Gatland had to Test select today that he would ignore the English players, even after they took a beating in the final. In two years’ time the England players could end up being the backbone of his pack.
He could still opt for an all-English front row, especially featuring Kyle Sinckler, whose World Cup final was cut short by injury. His going off was the decisive moment in the match for Jones’ team.
Sinckler is by far Gatland’s best tighthead. He is a powerhouse player, who can also be a brilliant linkman. His influence in the semi-final against the All Blacks was sensational, as he scrummed well and put in a big shift around the park.
If World Cup form is anything to go by, then England hooker Jamie George should wear in the No 2 jersey, especially after Ireland stalwart Rory Best decided to call it a day following his Barbarians stint. George is a solid lineout operator, but also very good with ball in hand, especially in the wide areas.
Gatland will definitely also pick Saracens lock Maro Itoje in the second row. His work rate and ability in the lineouts are going to be important to try to negate the Boks’ momentum at the set pieces. Itoje is also a wonderful defender, and should combine well with Welsh great Alun Wyn Jones, who should make the tour even though he will be 35 in 2021.
No 8 could be a toss-up between the sort of players of Gatland prefers in that position. If he is looking for a big runner and player who can smash his way over the advantage line, then England’s Billy Vunipola should crack the nod.
Vunipola carried with a lot of venom in the final against the Boks, but had limited success in terms of breaching defences. But he remains a threat with ball in hand and a player who can give any team momentum by getting over the advantage line.
However, if Gatland decides to play a hybrid No 8 – who brings a carrying ability and work rate – then South African-born Irishman CJ Stander will top that list. Stander brings a lot of hard work to the table, while he can also be explosive when he needs to be.
Gatland certainly has a lot of options to choose from, and he will be hoping that more players put up their hands for selection over the next 18 months. What is for sure, though, is that they need to man up for a physical challenge that few have managed to survive. Jones’ England have got the physical and mental scars to prove it.