We look through the contenders for the 2021 British and Irish Lions back-row positions, and who Warren Gatland might be looking at in terms of blindside flanker, openside flanker and No 8…
On the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand, the No 6 shirt was shared between Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Wales’ Sam Warburton, after Sean O’Brien had made the openside flanker jersey his own. Ireland’s CJ Stander also emerged off the bench to play on the blindside in the third Test.
With Warburton now retired and O’Mahony seemingly out of the frame – a damaging Six Nations red card costing him chances to impress – there will likely be fresh faces in with a shout of claiming the blindside role.
Tom Curry (Sale Sharks and England; Test caps: 32)
In a position which has perhaps seen the most alterations between the four nations in recent times, Curry has floated between 6 and 7 for England, in tandem with Sam Underhill (an out-and-out openside) and the likes of Mark Wilson or Courtney Lawes (both of whom have featured predominately on the blindside).
Taking into account his form of the last few years, Curry would appear a shoo-in to travel with the Lions, and such are his superb breakdown skills, power in contact, energy and work ethic in defence, he has a great chance of claiming a Test spot too.
Tadhg Beirne (Munster and Ireland; Test caps: 22)
Predominately a second row, there is a strong likelihood Beirne could feature on the blindside for the Lions this summer.
The Irishman’s work at the breakdown sets him apart from most others in the game, at Test or club level, and the way and frequency with which he poaches ball has been like a flanker. During the 2021 Six Nations, Beirne was one of the players of the championship, putting in a stream of sensationally consistent displays.
With several other second-row options, Beirne has the pace, dynamism and breakdown qualities to excel at 6, while it would also hand the Lions a further specialist lineout operator, and more weight and power against the Boks’ sizeable pack. Either way, Beirne is a certainty to tour.
Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues and Wales; Test caps: 28)
Up against it to make the tour, Navidi is nonetheless worthy of discussion due to his superb performances for Wales.
Whenever fit and called upon, the 30-year-old has impressed at Test level in the back-row as a real all-rounder, and despite playing just once in 2020 due to concussion, he returned in 2021 in fantastic physical shape. Gatland will know more than most what Navidi can bring.
As mentioned above, the 7 shirt was dominated by Ireland’s O’Brien on the 2017 tour to New Zealand, but having not played Test rugby since 2019, and having picked up a few injuries with London Irish, O’Brien is not in the conversation to tour this time around.
Justin Tipuric (Ospreys and Wales; Test caps: 85; British and Irish Lions tours: 2013, 2017).
Be it in his customary openside role, or on the blindside, Wales’ Tipuric has been one of the form players in Europe again over the last year or so.
A phenomenally talented rugby player, Tipuric possesses the pace and ball-playing skills of a back, but the power of a forward. His performances for Wales under Wayne Pivac have been instrumental in their revival.
A two-time Lions tourist before now, the 31-year-old has only featured in one Test match, such has been the calibre of other touring players. In 2021, expect him to be a key man.
Hamish Watson (Edinburgh and Scotland; Test caps: 41)
A man much talked about – and criticised – in other pages, owing to a perceived lack of comparable size, Watson’s performances in 2021 were more than worthy of his winning the Six Nations player of the tournament.
The 29-year-old has never been a Lion before, but his performances in recent years have given him a great opportunity of earning a call-up this time around.
At 6’1″ and 103kg, the notion that Watson is too small or lightweight to take on the Springboks is, quite frankly, ludicrous. His exceptional breakdown attributes, huge power in contact and deceptive pace mark him out as perhaps the standout natural openside to tour.
Josh van der Flier (Leinster and Ireland; Test caps: 31)
Were it not for Will Connors’ untimely injury playing for Ireland, his name and not Van der Flier’s would almost certainly be spoken about here. Indeed, were it not for Dan Leavy’s terrible injury struggles since 2019, he would likely be on the plane.
Van der Flier is an outside bet to make the touring party, but if selected, is someone who would not let Gatland and co down with his immense work-rate around the pitch. If he can help fire Leinster to a European Cup final, he might well be in line to travel this summer.
Sam Underhill (Bath and England; Test caps: 22)
If the Lions had been due to face the Springboks in the summer of 2019, there is no question that Underhill would be going, and probably starting in the 7 jersey.
The 24-year-old, who was so magnificent in England’s run to the 2019 World Cup final, has barely played any rugby in 2021, however, due to a troublesome hip injury.
There is no doubting, when looking into England’s 2021 performances, that Underhill was badly missed, but does he have enough credit in the bank to be picked despite not playing this calendar year? The flanker needs to go well vs Montpellier in the Challenge Cup semi-finals this weekend to have a chance.
Taulupe Faletau (Bath and Wales; Test caps: 89; British and Irish Lions tours: 2013, 2017)
The No 8 on the 2017 tour to New Zealand for all three Tests was Wales’ Faletau, who for almost a decade now, has been one of the premier performers in northern hemisphere rugby.
Faletau was a pivotal figure for the Lions four years ago, but after that tour, he played just twice in the 2018 Six Nations before then missing out on the rest of 2018 and all of 2019 – including the Rugby World Cup in Japan – through repeated injuries, including two arm breaks, a broken collarbone and knee complaints.
All told, between March 17 2018 and February 1 2020, Faletau didn’t play a single Test in a hellish period for the No 8. Since then, he was improved game-on-game, to the point at which in late 2020 and 2021, he has carried Wales to some victories and looked every inch the quality of player he was back in 2017.
Billy Vunipola (Saracens and England; Test caps: 60)
Vunipola had been in outstanding form prior to the 2017 tour, but was forced to withdraw through a shoulder injury, and as such has never been a Lion before.
Ironically, on the cusp of this Lions tour, Vunipola’s form is now perhaps at its most patchiest, while his club rugby on the pitch is currently at Championship level with Saracens.
With the monster carrying game and physicality Vunipola can bring, however, he will likely go as one of Gatland’s prime No 8 options.
CJ Stander (Munster and Ireland; Test caps: 52; British and Irish Lions tours: 2017)
Stander shocked Irish rugby by announcing last month that at just 31, he will be retiring from the sport at the end of the season.
Still one of the most consistent performers around, the teak-tough back-row was included in the 2021 Six Nations team of the year most recently, and in five years of representing Ireland has picked up 51 caps, barely missing a game.
Year-on-year he is a top carrier in both the European Cup and the Six Nations, while his breakdown work is now a key strength of his game too. A 2017 Test Lion, there would be no sweeter way for Stander to bow out, than with a Lions series victory against the country of his birth. Is he in Gatland’s plans though?
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