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Dublin: 0°C Friday 23 April 2021

Sinckler over Furlong and no Ryan in starting XV: Assembling the Lions front five for 2021

Bernard Jackman and Murray Kinsella join Gavan Casey to select their respective Lions tight fives just over a year out from the tour to South Africa.

Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler (L); James Ryan (R).
Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler (L); James Ryan (R).
Image: INPHO

PANDEMIC OR NO pandemic, we’ve reached the point in the rugby calendar where fans, journalists, and indeed players tend to begin to tentatively cast an eye towards the next Lions tour. The three-part series against world champions South Africa is now just over a year away and, perhaps more pertinently, potentially only a couple of international gatherings away: only time will tell how much Warren Gatland will be able to see his prospective players in action in their respective countries’ colours between now and July 2021.

With all of this in mind, The42 Rugby Weekly kicked off its own three-part series this week during which our own Murray Kinsella and our Rugby Weekly panellists will pick their overall Lions squads, as well as their starting XVs to face the ‘Boks, based on a blend of 2019/20 form, 2020/21 projections, and extremely scientific ‘feelings in their waters’.

Today’s first episode was all about the tight five (with middle five and back five to follow over the next two Thursdays), and so there was nobody better qualified than friend-of-the-show and former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman to join Murray and presenter Gavan Casey to run the rule over the best front-row forwards and locks on either side of the Irish Sea.

Predictably, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Case in point: Bernard’s starting hooker for the first Test didn’t even make Murray’s plane to South Africa. But three areas in which the lads found themselves in full agreement were tighthead prop and both lock positions. Unfortunately for Irish listeners, this agreement consisted of the omission of both Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan from the Lions starting team to face South Africa in Johannesburg on 24 July next year.

Bernard and Murray both opted for England’s Kyle Sinckler at three, detailing exactly why in the process. On Furlong, who started all three Tests over Sinckler during the 2017 tour to New Zealand, Bernard added:

“Sometimes during the Six Nations, looking back over the Scotland game, he just seemed a bit impatient with some of his scrummaging — maybe looking to be too dominant and not getting that right picture for the referee. That’s something that has maybe just crept in. And that could be just frustration, to be honest. He’s part of the Ireland leadership group now — that’s new for him. Obviously, he’s got a fairly impressive bank of experience already but maybe just adapting to [a leadership role], and frustration with Ireland’s World Cup, and looking to maybe just take on a bit too much himself a scrum time [are factors]… While he is a phenomenally talented scrummager, it’s about acting as a unit.

“I agree with Murray: his work rate hasn’t dropped off. He’s hungry, he’s energetic, but I just didn’t think his scrummaging was as good in this Six Nations as it can be. And, I suppose, also, the English pack and their front five together are so good, and so dominant, it’s probably a bit easier for Sinckler to look a little bit better.

But look, with Tadhg, very few players’ careers are consistently on an upward trajectory: there are always little drop-offs and the drop-off that Tadhg is going through still has him in the top three tightheads in our mind to go in a British and Irish selection. And he’s probably still in the top five tightheads in the world in terms of performance — it’s just that he was number one.

“And some of it is due to the Irish team trying to find their way a little bit”, Bernard added, “because some of his performances for Leinster have been excellent. So, he’s not a million miles away.

Going back to 2018, if you were making a Lions team then, it would have been underpinned with Irish players. Everyone looks better in a team that’s performing at their absolute maximum. At the moment, Ireland aren’t and Tadhg has probably suffered a little for that.

“But again, I’d reiterate, the key fundamentals in terms of his attitude and his work rate and energy are there, and they’re still very strong. Just the one concern, or the one area where I’d knock him back a few points, is that the Irish scrum hasn’t continued at the level that we know it can be at.”

kyle-sinckler-and-tadhg-furlong Kyle Sinckler and Tadhg Furlong during Lions training in 2017. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With their front-row selections settled, albeit Sinckler was the only common choice between them, the lads then looked towards the second row where Bernard was first to pull the trigger: his starters were Welsh talisman Alun Wyn Jones — who he picked as his personal preference for captain — and England’s Maro Itoje.

And even though it meant that Ireland’s standout performer of the past two years, James Ryan, would at best have to take his place on the bench, Murray picked the same two locks in his starting lineup, and also opted for Jones to lead the Lions on what would be his fourth tour.

“I totally agree. I think Alun Wyn Jones is clearly better [than the other potential touring locks],” he said. “I think he’s got the most complete game.

“If you think about it, like, he’s going to be 35 [in South Africa] but this break, obviously, will help. He came back in the Six Nations after an extended break after the World Cup — he was healing a few injuries. I think it probably did take him a bit of time to reach those fitness levels that he usually brings, but when he is at that level, he brings everything: he hammers rucks, he’s clever in the lineout; all the nuts-and-bolts stuff is really good. He’s got that offloading game.

He’s a big presence — he’s got something similar to Paul O’Connell in that strength of personality. I think he’d be a brilliant captain, especially on a tour against the ‘Boks where it’s going to be so confrontational, so aggressive up front, you’re going to need to have those really hard men standing up to it.

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maro-itoje-and-james-ryan James Ryan tackles Maro Itoje at Twickenham. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Now, James Ryan — I’m not saying he isn’t that,” Murray added. “I agree he’s a brilliant, world-class player, one of the first names on Ireland’s teamsheet, but I think he can get better.

I think he can push his handling, his offloading, which he had maybe when he was a younger player. We haven’t quite seen it [at senior level]; his role, I suppose, with Ireland is to smash tackles, smash rucks, make those really good carries with that low body position of his in close to rucks, and he does that absolutely brilliantly. I think it’ll be a very close call but I think Jones brings that experience, that nous, that leadership in a team; he knows what happened [in South Africa] in 2009 having been there on that tour and will be able to draw upon that experience, as well as that relationship with Gatland — and Gatland will know how to manage him on that tour.

“And I agree on Itoje. It’s been brilliant watching him get rid of that ill-disciplined edge as well where he gave up silly maul-defence penalties and things like that. He plays right on the boundary and it obviously frustrates Ireland fans when they’re playing against England but he’s just a nightmare — a horrible man to play against — and a brilliant guy to have on your team for that reason; pushing the edge, ultra-dynamic… He works so hard, his ruck stats are always really high.

“They’re three brilliant locks but I’d go with Itoje and Jones in the starting team.”

Episode one of The42 Rugby Weekly’s Making The Lions series is available to listen to now at the link below or wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, you name it.

Subscribe to The42 Rugby Weekly podcast here:

In the first of a three-part series, Bernard Jackman and Murray Kinsella join Gavan Casey to select their front rows and locks to board the plane and face world champions South Africa next summer.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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