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Beirne, Henderson and Conan looking to force way into Lions Test spots

The second row and back row combination will be pivotal for Warren Gatland’s side.

YESTERDAY, WE EXAMINED Warren Gatland’s options in the front row ahead of the Lions’ first game against Japan in Edinburgh in just nine days’ time.

Here, we move on to the locks and back rows, an area of the squad where Gatland has plenty of proven quality for the tour to South Africa.

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

Second rows

Alun Wyn Jones [35, 148, 9]

Maro Itoje [26, 48, 3]

Iain Henderson [29, 63, 0]

Jonny Hill [27, 9, 0]

Tadhg Beirne [29, 22, 0]

Courtney Lawes [32, 87, 2]

Lions legend Alun Wyn Jones was the obvious pick for Gatland as captain of this tour, particularly having been so impressive in Wales’ Six Nations title success. The 35-year-old is part of his fourth tour and has played in all nine of the Lions’ most recent Test games, starting all six in 2013 and 2017.

alun-wyn-jones Jones is the Lions captain. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He is the favourite to occupy the Lions’ tighthead lock slot, while England’s Maro Itoje will be very difficult to leave out of the team despite his disappointing Six Nations campaign this year.

Jones doesn’t call the Welsh lineout, so Itoje – who started the last two Lions Tests in 2017 – would take on that crucial duty if they are paired together against the Springboks. 

At his best, Itoje is a menace to opposition teams and one of the leading players on the planet. He plays on the borderline of legality and tipped onto the wrong side of it this year, conceding 12 penalties in his five games in the Six Nations, nearly double the number of the next worst offender among the Lions’ options.

Pushing the boundaries is part and parcel for a player like Itoje, who is always physically impactful. His average gain of 2.13 metres per carry was the best of the players in this position during the championship, while he made four turnovers of the opposition ball.

He is not the most fluid passing lock but can certainly offload when he gets beyond the gainline. Jones is adept at passing and offloading, so there would be balance if they are teamed up.

Not that the other lock options can be overlooked. Iain Henderson had perhaps his best Six Nations for Ireland this year. He made seven turnovers – five of them at the breakdown and two in the tackle – and also completed 17 passes to show that he has a good skillset to go along with his powerful carrying, which is particularly effective from close-range. Henderson – who was a Lions tourist in 2017 – didn’t concede a single penalty in the Six Nations and he also Ireland’s primary lineout caller.

iain-henderson Henderson at training in Jersey this week. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

His Ireland team-mate Tadhg Beirne was similarly impressive, making a remarkable nine turnovers – eight of them at the breakdown – although he did concede seven penalties, underlining how he too plays very close to the edge. While Beirne has worked hard to improve his ball-carrying off nine into traffic, he is also a very good playmaker, as illustrated by his 33 passes and offloads in the Six Nations. Beirne calls lineouts for Munster and has also done the job for Ireland.

England’s Jonny Hill was something of a surprise pick in this Lions squad but his inclusion makes sense despite his relative lack of Test experience with England. He is a tighthead lock and considered to be strong scrummager. He is not a frequent passer of the ball – just seven in the Six Nations – but hits hard and carries in tight channels. If Jones gets injured or fails to perform on tour, Hill is a contender to fill that role. 

Last but not least is 32-year-old Courtney Lawes, who didn’t feature for England in this year’s Six Nations due to injury. This is his third Lions tour and he came off the bench in the two most recent Tests against New Zealand in 2017.

A supremely hard-hitter in the tackler and capable of exploding over the gainline with ball in hand, Lawes can also play at blindside flanker, as can Beirne, Itoje, and Henderson, although not recently in the Ulster man’s case.

Playing one of his second row options in the number six jersey is certainly something Gatland will consider against the heavy-duty Springboks pack. Physical density is important against the South Africans, while the lineout is a crucial battleground. Having three locks in the team does make sense in that regard.

tadhg-beirne Beirne pictured during the Lions' golf outing in Jersey yesterday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

If the Lions do opt for Jones and Itoje as their starting lock pairing, which is how the 2017 Tour ended, then it seems quite possible that two of the other candidates discussed above could be included on the bench. Countering the Boks’ ‘Bomb Squad’ is an essential challenge, presuming Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber stick with their 6-2 bench split.

It could be that two of Henderson, Beirne, and Lawes are included on the bench to bring explosive impact. 

Back rows

Taulupe Faletau [30, 86, 4]

Tom Curry [23, 33, 0]

Justin Tipuric [31, 85, 1]

Hamish Watson [29, 41, 0]

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Jack Conan [28, 20, 0]

Sam Simmonds [26, 7, 0]

Taulupe Faletau is set to be a key figure at number eight for the Lions once again this year, having used the Six Nations to underline his status as one of the best players in the sport. A Test starter in the final clash against the Wallabies in 2013, and then for all three games against the All Blacks in 2017, he looks primed to pick up where he left off.

Gatland has opted to pick two more players who are best recognised as number eights in Ireland’s Jack Conan and Exeter’s Sam Simmonds – both of whom wouldn’t have been in many people’s long-term forecasts for this Lions squad.

bundee-aki Faletau is firm favourite to start at number eight. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Conan earned his spot with a burst of form for Leinster and then notable showings on his return for Ireland, particularly in their last Six Nations game against England. Simmonds, meanwhile, continues to be overlooked by England boss Eddie Jones but Gatland has rewarded his consistent and prolific form for Exeter.

Conan and Simmonds both share similarities with Faletau in being skillful, dynamic, comfortable in the 15-metre channels, and very mobile. They also have experience in the other back row slots.

It will be fascinating to note who ends up in the flanker positions for the Test series, with several of the seconds rows in contention at blindside flanker, as mentioned above.

It’s frightening to think that England’s Tom Curry only turned 23 this week, with 33 Test caps to his name already. Though England were poor this year, Curry continued to excel with his sheer physicality, breakdown competitiveness, work rate off-the-ball, and ever-growing handling skills. He is a force at the highest level and it’s not difficult to imagine him starting the Test series, particularly given that he can play across the back row.

Wales’ Justin Tipuric and Scotland’s Hamish Watson will have their minds firmly set on the Lions’ number seven shirt. Tipuric is a particularly talented rugby player with exceptional passing and even kicking skills, but his toughness probably goes under the radar due to those more eye-catching skills.

justin-tipuric-louis-rees-zammit-and-chris-harris Justin Tipuric [left] during yesterday's beach day in Jersey. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Watson, meanwhile, has been a powerhouse for the Scots in recent years thanks to his ferocious breakdown competition – he had four turnovers in the Six Nations, conceding no penalties – and his consistent ability to beat defenders. His pinball-like carrying can be effective even in the most heavily populated parts of the pitch, while he is also a superb tackler, completing 100% of his 60 efforts in the Six Nations.

Curry and Watson are not considered frontline lineout jumping options for their national teams, whereas Tipuric is elite in this area. However, Curry and Watson are both more commonly used as ball carriers closer to the ruck, which could be to their advantage.

A starting back row trio of Tipuric, Faletau, and Curry would provide balance in skillsets, while it’s obvious that bench impact will be pivotal in this series against the Boks. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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