On Thursday lunchtime, Warren Gatland will take centre stage in an old east London theatre to name his 36-man Lions squad. It is rugby’s most anticipated announcement of the year. Big names will miss out and, knowing Gatland, there could be one or two surprises.
The coaching panel have spent recent weeks casting their eye over matches across Europe. Some players have played themselves in. Others have played themselves out.
The Lions captain’s pick is one of the biggest headaches facing head coach Warren Gatland
Covid bubbles mean Gatland will take a smaller squad to South Africa than in previous years, leaving him with a balancing act across positions.
Rugby Correspondent Nik Simon spoke to a team of Lions legends, who produced a squad using their specialist insight for each position.
Adam Jones (Wal)
Lions 2009, 2013
Selected: Rory Sutherland, Mako Vunipola, Wyn Jones, Tadhg Furlong, Kyle Sinckler, Tomas Francis
The Springbok scrum has big men and aggression is their big thing, so you’re taking a risk if you try to outmuscle them. You need to be technically superior.
Tadhg Furlong is one of the two nailed-on props for the Lions tour along with Kyle Sinckler
If your tighthead operates incredibly low to the ground and adopts a strong posture then you stand a chance. Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler are nailed on. For me, Tomas Francis edges out Andrew Porter and Zander Fagerson for the third spot.
Loosehead is more open. Rory Sutherland has been in good form and Mako Vunipola has so much experience, so they are in. Joe Marler is the best scrummager, but he has not been involved with international rugby this year, so the third spot is likely to be a shootout between Wyn Jones, Ellis Genge and Cian Healy. I suspect the Welsh link means Jones will get the spot.
Rory Best (Ire) Lions 2013, 2017
Selected: Ken Owens, Jamie George, Ronan Kelleher
The key to winning lineout ball against the Boks is being smart and fast. You can’t go toe to toe with them because they’re big athletes. You have to make them second guess. On form, Ken Owens is the first pick. He’s experienced, dynamic and a big reason behind Wales’ Six Nations success.
Ken Owens played an instrumental role in Wales’ second Six Nations title in three years
By the time we get to the Tests, I think Jamie George will be the starter. England stalled during the Six Nations but George has credit in the bank and he is the best lineout thrower in the world.
For a long time, Luke Cowan-Dickie was my third hooker but I had doubts after Ireland beat England. Against the Springboks, you want big physical ball carriers and Ronan Kelleher fits that mould. If he has a big game for Leinster today, I think he could snatch it.
Ben Kay (Eng) Lions 2005
Selected: Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, James Ryan, Iain Henderson
Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje are the first picks, with James Ryan not far behind. They are all big-game animals. Taking a smaller squad, Warren will want a few guys who can play lock and back row. Itoje ticks that box, alongside Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne. They’re guys who add real ballast.
The lack of an authoritative lineout-caller like George Kruis is a slight cause for concern
You need guys who will not only make their tackles, but put in dominant shots to upset the South African physicality. Courtney Lawes would have been ideal if he were fit. The only concern is there is no out-and-out brilliant lineout caller like George Kruis. The majority of tries start from a lineout so you need to make sure you’re covered on that front.
James Haskell (Eng) Lions 2017
Selected: Tom Curry, Hamish Watson, Justin Tipuric, Tadhg Beirne, Sam Underhill, Taulupe Faletau, Billy Vunipola
There are so many options, so quality players such as Caelen Doris and CJ Stander could miss out. It comes down to the balance of ball carriers, lineout options and breakdown threats.
My starting back-row would be Tom Curry, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau. Curry is a powerful all-rounder, Tipuric has the best footballing skills of any flanker in the world and Faletau is outstanding, with footwork as well as the gritty stuff. I was completely in awe of him on the 2017 tour.
You need guys who can interfere with the ruck, to stop magicians like Cheslin Kolbe getting quick ball.
James Haskell rates Justin Tipuric as the best footballing flanker in world rugby at the moment
Hamish Watson has been pretty special for a while. People question his size but technique wins every time.
Tadhg Beirne offers versatility as a lock or flanker and those guys are worth their weight in gold. The set-piece battle is huge and he’s a guy who can really step up with his line-out maul defence. Sam Underhill hasn’t played a lot but he’s a man-stopper and he’s developed his carrying game.
Billy Vunipola will be the first person to admit that his form hasn’t been where it should be, but if Gatland gets him back to his best then he could be devastating.
Greig Laidlaw (Sco) Lions 2017
Selected: Conor Murray, Ali Price, Gareth Davies
Knowing Gregor Townsend (attack coach), the Lions will want to instil some real attacking intent. They will want all-rounders, rather than someone to marshal tight carries and box kicking. You don’t want to take them on at their own game.
Conor Murray’s Test match experience and Lions pedigree could be a key ingredient
Conor Murray would be my first pick as he has a lot of Test match nous. There are endless options with guys like Tomos Williams, Dan Robson and Danny Care. They might look for someone a little bit different. A chaser. For me, the next two in line are Gareth Davies and Ali Price. Davies is strong and he can come off the bench to sniff a try.
James Hook (Wal) Lions 2009
Selected: Dan Biggar, Finn Russell
Gatland likes an error-free No 10 who sticks to the script. Pulling a squad together in a short space of time, you need someone who gets players on the same page quickly. He will trust Dan Biggar, Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell to do that, while Finn Russell offers something completely different.
Someone has to miss out, as you’re unlikely to be able to accommodate all four. For me, Biggar is the starting No 10. He can kick to compete and manage a backline. Aerially and defensively he’s very strong.
Owen Farrell’s selection at centre would open the door for the maverick Finn Russell at fly-half
If Farrell is picked as a centre, which I think is his best position, then that could change the dynamic in Russell’s favour. Gatland might see Russell as too much of a risk, but I think he deserves to go. You probably won’t have time to build a team around him, with all his nuances, in a short space of time. You always get the odd error with someone as creative as Russell, but he’s a guy who can come off the bench to really change a game.
Jamie Roberts (Wal) LIONS 2009, 2013
Selected: Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Davies, Garry Ringrose, Chris Harris
You need a focal point against the Boks. Someone who can run into heavy traffic and make yards. That’s why George North is a big loss, because he’s so powerful. England have really missed Manu Tuilagi for similar reasons, but I just don’t think he’s played enough to go. Robbie Henshaw is the closest form player you’ve got, so he has to go as a No 12 or No 13.
If Farrell is your 10-12, and assuming Henshaw goes, then you pick three from Jonathan Davies, Garry Ringrose, Chris Harris, Henry Slade and Huw Jones. Ringrose has become a real leader at Leinster and looks ready for that step up.
Jamie Roberts has pinpointed Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw as the most in-form centre right now
Davies is still fighting his way back to form, but Gatland will want his experience. Harris is strong defensively, bringing good line speed, and that’s what you need against Damian de Allende and Andre Esterhuizen.
They’re physical and, with North missing, powerful operators like Henshaw, Duhan van der Merwe and even Jack Nowell could become key men.
Tommy Bowe (Ire) Lions 2009, 2013
Selected: Anthony Watson, Duhan van der Merwe, Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit
Gatland likes to have someone to get over the gain line, like North or Jamie Roberts. Van der Merwe is a man mountain who can do that. He has been scoring tries for fun and pops up all over the pitch. Defence isn’t always his biggest strength but he makes up for that with his attacking threat.
Even though he’s picked as a full-back, Liam Williams is a very good defender against someone like Kolbe and he’ll be well equipped under their kicking game.
Duhan van der Merwe’s attacking strengths outweigh the defensive weaknesses he has
Anthony Watson could easily get into the starting line-up, while Josh Adams is a super finisher and Louis Rees-Zammit could be the youngster who carries around the mascot teddy. There’s a lot of talent and the likes of Jonny May and Keith Earls could be unlucky to miss out.
Geordan Murphy (Ire) Lions 2005
Selected: Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams
The Boks will play exactly like they did against England in the World Cup final — competing hard up front and then putting the ball in the air.
You need a full-back who can cover the space in the backfield and deal with those high balls. For me, Stuart Hogg is the standout full-back at the moment. He has the ability to win in the air, and has a huge boot to match.
Stuart Hogg’s kicking ability and aerial prowess mean he has to be on the plane to South Africa
Liam Williams is a full-back with the ability to play on the wing, while Anthony Watson is a winger with the ability to play full-back. That versatility is important.
If one of the two specialist No 15s went down injured, then Gatland might look at bringing in a more traditional full-back such as Leigh Halfpenny or Mike Brown.