British and Irish Lions in South Africa: Who you chose to start the first Test

3 weeks ago
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A split picture of Owen Farrell and Finn Russell

The British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa this summer may have been thrown into doubt by rising coronavirus cases, but selection debates still offer a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

Whenever and wherever the Lions face the world champions, head coach Warren Gatland has a tough job on his hands picking his starting XV.

Luckily, BBC Sport readers and Rugby Union Weekly presenters ex-England wing Ugo Monye, fellow international Chris Ashton and BBC rugby union correspondent Chris Jones have offered him a helping hand.

BBC Sport put together a list of 80 hopefuls to choose from – and below are the names that the readers and the Rugby Union Weekly team picked to face South Africa in the first Test.

The scrum seemed fairly straightforward in the end, with all sides in agreement on what looks like a strong pack.

But questions arose in the backline, where the Rugby Union Weekly presenters disagreed with readers in two positions.

Can England captain Owen Farrell and Scotland fly-half Finn Russell work together effectively? And if they can, who should play alongside Farrell in the centre?

Scrum-half is another area of contention, with England’s Ben Youngs, Ireland’s Conor Murray and Wales’ Gareth Davies all competing for a place.

On the 2017 Tour of New Zealand, which ended in a draw, seven English, four Welsh and four Irish players started the first Test.

This time, BBC Sport readers have picked nine English, three Irish, two Scottish and one Welsh player.

With more than 48,000 teams picked by readers so far, here is a chance to have a look at who was chosen below. If you haven’t done yours yet, you can still choose a team at the bottom of this page.

A split picture of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadhg Furlong

Loose-head prop

Readers and RUW chose: Mako Vunipola

England’s Mako Vunipola was the overwhelming favourite, picked in 54% of teams, with Ireland’s Cian Healy second on 17.41%.

Jones said: “My only reservation with Mako is we didn’t see much of him in 2020. He didn’t play a whole Six Nations because he was quarantining. He didn’t start every game in the Autumn Nations Cup. He’s a world-class player, but it feels like he’s the man in possession and there hasn’t been anyone coming through to wrestle the jersey away.”

Monye said: “I’m surprised Joe Marler (5.21%) is down the list. We know the threat South Africa will have at the scrum. I think Joe Marler is probably the best scrummaging loose-head.”

Hooker

Readers and RUW chose: Jamie George

England’s Jamie George was an even more popular choice, featuring in 72% of teams, with team-mate Luke Cowan-Dickie next best on 11%.

Monye said: “In 2019, Warren Gatland gave us five players and Jamie George was one of those who was already on the plane. I’m not arguing with the public.”

Jones said: “He’d be my hooker and he might be my captain too. But Maro Itoje is probably the leading candidate because I don’t see Owen Farrell being Warren Gatland’s captain and I don’t see Alun Wyn Jones making the starting XV.”

Tight-head prop

Readers and RUW chose: Tadhg Furlong

Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong was picked by 59% of readers, with England’s Kyle Sinckler on a commendable 29%.

Jones said: “This is exactly the same front row that played in New Zealand. In terms of continuity from one tour to the other, Mako is 29, Jamie George is 30, Furlong is 28 – what an age profile for a front row that has already got three starting Test matches on the previous tour.”

Locks

Readers and RUW chose: Maro Itoje and James Ryan

A split picture of Maro Itoje and James Ryan

England’s Maro Itoje was picked in an incredible 93% of teams between the second and back row, with 54% of readers choosing him at number four. Ireland’s James Ryan picked up 25% of votes at number five, with Wales legend Alun Wyn Jones missing out on 16.65%.

Monye said: “Alun Wyn is a big one because if the tour gets postponed to 2022, he could be a casualty. For Maro Itoje and for James Ryan, it feels right.”

A split picture of Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola and Sam Underhill

Flankers

Readers and RUW chose: Tom Curry and Sam Underhill

England’s World Cup stars Tom Curry and Sam Underhill came out on top with Curry chosen on the blind-side in 33% of teams and Underhill on the open-side in 26%. Honourable mentions also go to Wales’ Justin Tipuric, chosen at number seven by 16% of readers, and Ireland’s CJ Stander, picked at number six by 11%.

Ashton said: “There is no debate with either Tom Curry or Sam Underhill. You’re going to South Africa, you need tacklers. These two have proven that they are the best tacklers and poachers in the business. They are going to be essential playing against South Africa.”

Number eight

Readers and RUW chose: Billy Vunipola

England’s Billy Vunipola made it into 44% of teams with Wales’ Taulupe Faletau second on 28%. Interestingly, 9% of you wanted Exeter sensation Sam Simmonds, who has not played for England since 2018.

Ashton said: “You struggle to see Billy have a bad game but other people expect that standard he has set all the time which is so difficult.”

Monye said: “After the World Cup, Billy said he wasn’t at it like he normally is. I thought he had a quiet 2019 and sometimes you can become a victim of your own success. He has been brilliant for so many years for Saracens having big moments in big matches.”

A split picture of Ben Youngs and Conor Murray

Scrum-half

Readers chose: Conor Murray

RUW chose: Ben Youngs

While the Rugby Union Weekly team opted for the stability of England centurion Ben Youngs, readers preferred Ireland’s Conor Murray, who was picked in 33% of teams. Wales’ Gareth Davies was second on 20% with Youngs close behind on 19%.

Jones said: “I think nine is the area where the Lions are struggling the most. There are plenty of good players knocking about but in terms of a clear candidate, it is a tough one.”

Ashton said: “It depends how they play, but Ben Youngs could box-kick the life out of South Africa.”

Fly-half

Readers and RUW chose: Finn Russell

The star power of Scotland’s Finn Russell at number 10 was too much to resist, with the Racing 92 back chosen by 45% of readers. England captain Owen Farrell was the best of the rest on 32%.

Monye said: “In the back row, readers have gone for conservative choices, then they’ve picked the magician Finn Russell at fly-half. Russell’s range of passing and decision making at the line is just phenomenal.”

Ashton said: “Of course they want to see Finn Russell. We’ve seen how good Finn is behind a good pack. I’m definitely going for him in this situation.”

A split picture of Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi

Centres

Readers chose: Owen Farrell and Jonathan Davies

RUW chose: Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi

England captain Owen Farrell made it into 34% of teams at inside centre, with Wales’ Jonathan Davies – player of the series on the 2017 tour – was picked by 29% of you at number 13. Manu Tuilagi, Rugby Union Weekly’s choice at outside centre, was in 23% of teams in that position.

Jones said: “Jonathan Davies is a veteran of two tours. Finn Russell picking off Jonathan Davies on the gainline, that’s a tantalising prospect.”

A split picture of Jonny May, Stuart Hogg and Anthony Watson

Wings

Readers and RUW chose: Jonny May and Anthony Watson

After Jonny May brought his England try tally to 31 in the autumn, he was the top choice on both wings, with 52% of readers choosing him on the left. Team-mate Anthony Watson was the next most popular on the right, chosen by 15%. Wales’ Liam Williams (13%) and Josh Adams (10%) also deserve a mention.

Ashton said: “Jonny May is a straightforward choice; you can’t argue with that. Jonny is doing what he’s doing being an outstanding winger.”

Full-back

Readers and RUW chose: Stuart Hogg

Scotland captain Stuart Hogg had plenty of fans, with 69% of readers claiming him as their full-back. Wales’ Liam Williams was a popular choice at 15 too, with 18%, but England’s Elliot Daly managed just 5%.

Jones said: “Because of the nature of 2020, a lot of players seem to have regressed. I think Daly has been put in that category, as have Jacob Stockdale and Stuart Hogg. If you were picking this a year ago, you would have had more players in form than we have now.”

You can still have your say below, but your choices won’t count towards the BBC Sport readers’ team.

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2021 British and Irish Lions dates

Saturday, 26 June: Lions v Japan – Murrayfield, Edinburgh

Saturday, 3 July: Stormers v Lions – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town

Wednesday, 7 July: South Africa ‘Invitational’ v Lions – Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth

Saturday, 10 July: Sharks v Lions – Jonsson Kings Park, Durban

Wednesday, 14 July: South Africa ‘A’ Team v Lions – Mbombela Stadium, Mbombela

Saturday, 17 July: Bulls v Lions – Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria

Saturday, 24 July (first Test): Springboks v Lions – FNB Stadium, Johannesburg

Saturday, 31 July (second Test): Springboks v Lions – Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town

Saturday, 7 August (third Test): Springboks v Lions – Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg

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