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Tadhg Furlong set to be a key man in the Lions front row again

Warren Gatland will have some big calls to make at loosehead prop and hooker.

Rory Sutherland, Ken Owens, and Tadhg Furlong.
Rory Sutherland, Ken Owens, and Tadhg Furlong.

WITH THEIR PRE-tour camp in Jersey getting now in full swing, Warren Gatland and his Lions coaching staff will continue to mull over the selection options in their 37-man squad ahead of the tour to South Africa.

The Lions’ first game against Japan in Edinburgh is in just 10 days’ time, so we at The42 will use the coming days to work through Gatland’s squad in four positional groupings – front rows, locks and back rows, halfbacks, and centres and back threes.

The format listed below is [age, national team Test caps, Lions Test caps].

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Loosehead props

Mako Vunipola [30, 67, 6]

Wyn Jones [29, 35, 0]

Rory Sutherland [28, 16, 0]

rory-sutherland Rory Sutherland at the Lions' golf and beach day in Jersey today. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Mako Vunipola is the Lions incumbent here, having played in all six of the Test games on the last two tours to Australia and New Zealand. His most recent international form with England hasn’t been compelling but he has huge credit in the bank with Gatland.

At his best, Vunipola is a relentlessly effective tackler and very capable of winning collisions with ball in hand. He is very comfortable as a link passer too. The Lions coaches will, however, be cognisant of the fact that Vunipola was part of the English pack that was savaged by the Springboks’ scrum in the 2019 World Cup final. Vunipola is the heaviest of the loosehead options at 121kg to Jones’ 118kg and Sutherland’s 113kg.

Jones is the form option in terms of international rugby, having excelled in Wales’ Six Nations success this year. He hasn’t always been a standout at Test level – he still has more replacement appearances than starts – but has really matured recently.

One of Jones’ strengths is his competitiveness at the defensive breakdown, while he also has good handling skills. 

Sutherland is the dark horse of the loosehead trio and another relatively late developer, having previously been crippled by injuries. He has played just 16 Tests for Scotland but his form in recent seasons has been superb.

The Edinburgh man is an excellent tackler, bringing devastating impact to many of his hits, while he brings an aggressive edge to his ball-carrying.

Sutherland conceded just two penalties [one at the scrum] in his five Six Nations appearances this year, whereas Jones gave up nine [five at the scrum] and Vunipola conceded 10 [five at the scrum].

Sutherland dislocated his shoulder in the final game of the Six Nations and hasn’t played since, but is expected to be fit in time for the start of the Lions’ tour.

Jones is the form selection at loosehead but Sutherland could well grab his opportunity and enjoy a rise to play Tests, although one senses that Gatland would dearly love to see the experienced Vunipola deliver his world-class best over the coming weeks.

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Hookers

Jamie George [30, 59, 3]

Ken Owens [34, 82, 2]

Luke Cowan-Dickie [27, 31, 0]

ken-owens Ken Owens during altitude training this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Jamie George started all three Tests last time around for the Lions in New Zealand but, again, it’s a Welshman who carries the best Test form into this series. Ken Owens is 34 now but was excellent in Wales’ Six Nations success this year.

George, who was been playing in the Championship with Saracens this season alongside Vunipola, only started two of England’s five games in the Six Nations, with Exeter man Luke Cowan-Dickie preferred to start in the other three.

Cowan-Dickie’s form for Exeter has been excellent for a long time and he was effective for England in the recent championship, nailing his 32 lineout throws at a 100% success rate – which compares favourably with Owens’ 56 throws for 89% and George’s 23 for 87%, even if we know these success rates are down to collective efforts.

Cowan-Dickie is a very consistent chop tackler and also the strongest breakdown jackal of the three hookers, although Owens and George are very tough defenders as well.

George is a dynamic attacking hooker and his average gain of 4.09 metres per carry in the Six Nations stacks up well against Cowan-Dickie’s 2.37 metres and Owens’ 1.38. George does tend to make more of his carries out in the 15-metre channel, however, and is very comfortable at playing a wide forward role in his team’s attacking shape. 

Owens has the most miles on the clock and has Lions Test experience from 2017, when he made two replacement appearances, while he is considered a strong leader and a very positive influence on team-mates.

Gatland will value his touring qualities but Owens, who is the heaviest of the three hooker options, will rightly be targeting a first Test start.

Cowan-Dickie might be considered a strong bench impact player as Gatland looks to counter the Springboks’ ‘Bomb Squad,’ while George will be determined to keep his place as first-choice Lions hooker. 

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Ireland’s Rónan Kelleher has been training with the Lions this week as George finishes up his season with Saracens. 

Tighthead props

Tadhg Furlong [28, 49, 3]

Zander Fagerson [25, 38, 0]

Kyle Sinckler [28, 44, 3]

tadhg-furlong Furlong at training in Jersey this week. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Tadhg Furlong made his long-awaited return for Ireland in this year’s Six Nations, putting a lengthy spell out of the game behind him with a string of superb performances. Barring injury, he looks certain to resume his status as the Lions’ first-choice tighthead prop.

Gatland has already lost the man who many saw as the ideal bench tighthead in Andrew Porter, who has been Furlong’s understudy with Ireland and Leinster and shone while the Wexford man was sidelined. 

A toe injury has ruled him out, however, and that meant a late call-up for England’s Kyle Sinckler, who came off the bench in all three Lions Tests in 2017. Gatland publicly voiced his doubts over Sinckler’s temperament in the intervening years before Wales played the English but his omission from the original squad was still a shock.

The Lions boss has challenged Sinckler to continue to “stick two fingers up” at him by barging all the way into the Test series and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he did so.

Scotland’s Zander Fagerson will be battling ferociously, however, having enjoyed a strong Six Nations this year. He is an accurate defender with a big engine around the pitch, which allows his ruck work to come to the fore. He is also listed by the Lions as the heaviest of the tightheads options at 125kg compared to Sinckler’s 122kg and Furlong’s 119kg [Furlong is listed at 123kg by Leinster and Ireland].

Fagerson is possibly the least dynamic ball-carrier of the trio – averaging 0.89 metres per carry in the Six Nations compared to Furlong’s 1.32 and Sinckler’s 1.29 – while his concession of seven penalties [five at the scrum] in the championship was also higher than Sinckler’s six [one at scrum time] and Furlong’s four [also one at the scrum].

Most of the forwards Gatland has picked are comfortable at catching and passing, with all three tightheads capable in that area. Sinckler is a particularly skillful player with ball in hand, while Furlong is highly adept at link passing and tip-on passing.

It will be fascinating to see if Fagerson can continue his rise with this exposure to an elite environment like Lions camp, but Furlong is the firm favourite to start and Sinckler – whose injury early in the World Cup final in 2019 was hugely damaging for England – would be a strong option to impact from the bench.

- This article was updated at 8.22pm to indicate Furlong’s weight as listed by Leinster and Ireland.  

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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