We look through the contenders for the 2021 British and Irish Lions second row positions, and who Warren Gatland might be looking at ahead of his squad announcement…
Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys and Wales; Test caps: 157; British and Irish Lions tours: 2009, 2013, 2017)
Were this discussion to have taken place even as recently as four months ago, Wales legend Jones would have been left out of most people’s prospective squads.
The Welsh skipper had overseen a side which floundered through the 2020 Six Nations with four defeats, and then into an equally demoralising autumn, where they lost heavily to Ireland and England.
Yet, fast forward to 2021, and Jones is fresh from leading Wales to the unlikeliest and strangest Six Nations win in memory. His own form having picked up considerably, the 35-year-old is now odds on to make a fourth tour (only Brian O’Driscoll, Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson have before), and might well do it as tour skipper.
Maro Itoje (Saracens and England; Test caps: 50; British and Irish Lions tours: 2017)
A Test Lion for all three Tests on his maiden tour in 2017, Itoje’s career has largely gone from strength to strength since, becoming a totemic figure for England as they made the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.
His on-field intensity and constant aim of ‘spoiling’ play has led to some disciplinary issues on the pitch on occasion, but in terms of sheer talent, Itoje is up there with the best in the world and will certainly tour this summer.
He is one of a number of Saracens players currently playing in the Championship, however, due to the club’s enforced relegation for salary cap breaches – an excuse put forward by some for England’s very poor 2021 Six Nations performance. Will the Saracens contingent be up to speed to face the Boks?
James Ryan (Leinster and Ireland; Test caps: 34)
A player who came to professional prominence around the time of the last Lions tour was Ireland’s Ryan, who made his Test debut vs USA and then played against Japan in the summer of 2017 – both before he had even played a game for Leinster.
Still just 24, Ryan has gone on to win almost everything in the sport already: PRO14 titles in 2018, 2019 and 2020; a European Cup in 2018, a Six Nations Grand Slam and Triple Crown in 2018, as well as a series victory vs Australia in the summer of 2018.
He was also named Ireland’s Players Player of the Year in 2019. Ryan’s form may have dipped for Ireland at times over the last couple of years, but his quality should be enough to get him on the plane.
Tadhg Beirne (Munster and Ireland; Test caps: 22)
As will be explored further in Saturday’s back-row contenders article, Beirne is likely to travel with the Lions this summer as a lock/blindside flanker option for Gatland and co.
A second row the majority of the time for province Munster and with Ireland, Beirne’s capabilities at the breakdown and in open play have seen him feature at blindside flanker to superb effect too, and it is perhaps in this role he will most likely feature for the Lions vs the physically dominant Springboks.
A player in the absolute peak of his career, Beirne’s performances this season have been magnificent and there are almost zero doubts he will be selected to tour.
Jonny Gray (Exeter Chiefs and Scotland; Test caps: 61)
Perhaps the second row most up against it to tour, Gray was ignored by Gatland for the 2017 tour despite his tireless displays for Scotland.
The 27-year-old has since moved to Exeter Chiefs from Glasgow Warriors, becoming a European Cup and Premiership champion last season.
A big, physical lock forward, most known for his tackling numbers, does Gray have the top quality of some other candidates to make the squad?
Iain Henderson (Ulster and Ireland; Test caps: 63; British and Irish Lions tours: 2017)
A tourist four years ago, Henderson impressed enough in the tour matches to be counted unlucky not to have made a Test squad.
The physical Ulsterman has struggled with injuries in the intervening years since, but when on song, Henderson is one of the most talented forwards in the northern hemisphere and should be in good shape to make the squad.
Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints and England; Test caps: 89; British and Irish Lions tours: 2017)
Like Henderson, Lawes toured in New Zealand with the Lions in 2017, and like the Irishman, Lawes impressed hugely but was left out of the first Test squad.
The rangy and powerful Northampton lock forced his way in to pick up Lions caps in the following two Tests, however, and in the years since he became an essential player as England made the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.
Since that World Cup, Lawes picked up ankle and pectoral injuries and as such, only played twice in 2021 at Test level. His injury absences may harm his chances therefore, but as well as his qualities at lock, Lawes – like Beirne – has played on the blindside too.
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