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The British and Irish Lions Tour 2021: Are locks the key to unpicking South Africa?

January 1st, 2021
Sir Clive Woodward certainly knows his onions when it comes to the meaning of the noun ‘success’ in a sporting context. After all, he is a former Rugby World Cup winning head coach and a frequently sought after pundit. He also expresses his views on all matters rugby in a regular column for UK tabloid, the Daily Mail and in a recent edition wrote: “Build the team around Itoje and Owen Farrell and let’s see some real consistency in selection – that is key to international success at the very top table.”

This admittedly followed England’s one-sided victory win over Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup in November, but it struck me as equally good advice to The British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa 2021 head coach Warren Gatland, as it was for England’s Eddie Jones.

I am sure that Eddie Jones, an exceptionally shrewd head coach himself, is much more than likely to agree with Woodward who describes Maro Itoje as being “a linchpin for England moving forward.”

Following his international debut in 2016, the Saracens club man has won 75 per cent of his Test matches. During that time, Itoje has evolved into one of Jones’ trusted lieutenants, despite being relatively young, while his recent performances in an England shirt have only served to reinforce Woodward’s views.

England’s defensive enforcer, a title which Itoje has earned by persistent daring deed, has also been switched from the second-row to blindside flanker in games, where he has proved equally robust in the face of change.

Itoje’s importance within Northern Hemisphere rugby should not be underestimated. He would be considered the cornerstone for success in any international side, in either position. His achievement level at just 26, with four Premiership titles, three European Cups and three Six Nations crowns under his belt, is phenomenal.

Above all, having lost with England in the Rugby World Cup final to the now World Champion Springboks, he will be completely energised to beat South Africa on home turf. He will use every last shred of his considerable strength and skill to disrupt the power-bossing strategy of the Springbok pack.

This is a gentle reminder to book your tickets and tour packages for The British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa 2021.

The favourite to partner Itoje in Warren Gatland’s first choice team is his opposite number for Ireland, James Ryan. Conversations touching on Lions’ squad selection during the past twenty months have pretty much without exception paired the two together in the engine room.

There is sound logic behind the talk, 24-year-old James Ryan has already captained his country and like Itoje, Ryan’s rise has been meteoric and accompanied by an explosion of silverware. Certainly 2018 was a fine year for the giant lock who plies his trade with Irish Pro14 and European Rugby Champions Cup side Leinster. He was already a member of the Six Nations Grand Slam winning Ireland side before capturing both the Pro14 and the Champions Cup titles.

Ryan holds the greatest respect for Itoje, in a recent interview for Ireland, he said:

“He’s a serious player,” adding, “A real all-round second row. They [England] have got some serious players across their pack. We want to test ourselves against some of the best players in the world.”

Despite the generous praise for his regular international opponent, Ryan has an almost identical win percentage to that of Itoje when representing his country (75.86 percent) and like the Saracens forward, plays a crucial role within Ireland's pack and defensive line.

Yet, Ryan although focused on developing his own captaincy and leadership skills, certainly for now, is calling along with a rising chorus of others, for Itoje, to skipper the Lions next summer.

Then there is another young English contender for a Lions’ crack at the Springboks, Exeter Chiefs’ Jonny Hill. As the Lions tour to South Africa nudges clearly into view out of peripheral vision, the spotlight is now distinctly on Maro Itoje’s future partnerships in England’s second-row.

During Itoje’s England career, either Courtney Lawes or George Kruis have occupied the second berth, but with Lawes suffering a longer term ankle injury and Kruis now playing in Japan and no longer selectable, there has been a vacancy in the second lock position.

Hill was named on the bench for meeting with Ireland, having already made his international debut against Italy alongside Itoje and he is good, very good. There are already early parallels between the pair in terms of accruing silverware.

The year that Itoje first stepped onto the England stage, he won the Six Nations title as well as the Premiership and the Champions Cup, an achievement which Hill has replicated. Hill has lifted three major titles in three weeks as Exeter and England delivered. It took Itoje two months.

Jonny Hill’s objective is to now make the second-lock position in the international side his own, having established himself as a key member of the Chiefs’ powerful pack in 2019-20. Beside his 10 tries for Exeter, Hill made 257 tackles in all competitions last season - his completion rate in the Premiership was 89 percent - and he also excellent with ball in hand with a series of superb carries for his club in the big games.

Hill’s consistent performances, and trophy winning ways, suggest the 26-year-old warrants a regular starting place for England.  Although the Lions tour is a mere seven months away, it is still feasible for the Exeter Chief to forge a sustainable partnership with Itoje in both settings.

Sir Clive Woodward is correct when he writes, “He’s the world’s best lock,” for in the past four years Itoje’s performance levels have been in continuous ascent. His seat on the plane to South Africa seems almost a foregone conclusion. The captaincy perhaps less so.

However, for Ryan and Hill, the Autumn Nations Cup fixtures definitely helped their cause and both of them are way good enough. However, it will be next year’s Six Nations that presents them with the best chance to grab Warren Gatland’s attention and book a place to join, what could prove unstoppable, forces with Itoje on The British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa 2021.

South Africa have a big pack that like to boss their way around the park, but with three locks of such immense power and quality in the squad, Warren Gatland has the armoury to meet the Springboks challenge head on and unpick their tactics to the Lions’ advantage.

Having presented such a mouthwatering prospective line-up of high-performance second-rows, all with potentially excellent chances of joining the Lions’ squad, please overcome your excitement and don’t forget to book your tickets and tour packages for The British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa 2021.