Not unlike the Tour de France’s opening stage in Yorkshire in 2014, this year’s British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa will commence in incongruous surroundings. They do not speak much Afrikaans on the streets of Edinburgh, while Japan are a different proposition to a fired-up provincial side aching to dent visiting morale on a bone-hard field somewhere on the highveld.
Certain aspects of Lions tours, though, never change. Wherever you play, whatever the opposition, any Lion worth his crystallised sea salt is looking to show from minute one that they merit selection for the distant Test matches. “Every single player wants to play in the Tests, because that’s how you’re measured,” explains John Bentley, one of the unexpected stars of the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa. “The suggestion that a player was a dirt tracker [back then] was ridiculous. We had players who all wanted to perform on a Saturday afternoon in the Tests.”
Keith Wood, the outstanding former Ireland hooker who ended up starting both winning Tests on that 1997 trip, is equally clear how every self-respecting Lion must kick off the tour. “I don’t think you can assume you’re going to get picked,” he says. “If you make the presumption you’re being picked, someone will jump up and bite you in the arse. You have to prove it in every training session and every time you go on to the field.”
The reminiscences of Bentley, Wood and others form part of an excellent, evocative podcast series called Inside The Tour which revisits that special series of 24 years ago. Two things about this fabled expedition stick out at this distance, beyond the stirring speeches, the major characters and the stunning series outcome. One is the number of key figures no one expected would play such a major role; the second is the selectorial bravery that allowed them to do so.
How many, at the outset, would have expected Paul Wallace, Tom Smith, Jeremy Davidson, Matt Dawson and Bentley to be pivotal individuals whose contributions still echo down the years? Wallace was only picked as a replacement when Peter Clohessy pulled out, a number of Smith’s colleagues barely knew who he was at the start of the tour, Davidson benefited from Doddie Weir’s savage tour-ending injury and Dawson, similarly, had been expected to play second fiddle to Rob Howley before the latter damaged his shoulder. Prior to the tour Bentley had failed to attract even the slightest interest from the English national selectors.
Which begs the question: which 2021 tour members widely assumed to be candidates for the “bin juice” or “the midweek veg”, as the 2017 second string dubbed themselves, will end up on the weekend front line? History would suggest a handful of supposed outsiders could easily force their way into the equation with a fast tour start, particularly with just two midweek games on the revised South African itinerary.
The first is a Test Lion already, which should probably disqualify him from this category, but Kyle Sinckler was not in the original touring squad named last month. What a story it would make if he were to be transformed from tearful tour reject to triumphant series winner in the coming weeks, particularly after seeing his new club Bristol relinquish a 28-0 lead against his former side Harlequins in last Saturday’s Premiership semi-final.
What about another prop, Rory Sutherland, who has recovered from a shoulder injury just in time for this trip? Four years ago he was in a wheelchair with his career in jeopardy following surgery on torn adductor muscles. It would be some renaissance if he can defuse the so-called “Bomb Squad”, such a major factor in South Africa’s 2019 World Cup victory. If ever there was a moment for one or two Lions tight forwards to make a name for themselves this is surely it.
Competition for places will also be huge in the back row where, as things stand, Hamish Watson and Justin Tipuric might be expected to play second fiddle to the force of nature that is England’s Tom Curry. Then again Watson is the current Six Nations Player of the Championship and Tipuric’s Wales have just won the Six Nations title. Both have also been training in Jersey for a week already which, as assistant coach Neil Jenkins has pointed out, means they are slightly ahead of Curry and Sam Simmonds, who have been busy on club duty.
With so little time to acclimatise in South Africa, furthermore, the Japan test will be vital for one or two backs looking to make an instant impression. Write down the Lions’ probable starting 9, 10 and 13 for the first Test and, right now, the names Conor Murray, Dan Biggar and Robbie Henshaw probably feature high up on the list. All are experienced previous Lions who, in the mind’s eye, would do a very decent job in the maelstrom of a first Test against the Springboks in Cape Town on 24 July.
But hang on. What if Warren Gatland and his assistants are left open-mouthed on a daily basis by the class oozing from Finn Russell on the training field? The received wisdom is that the Scotland stand-off will, at best, be a Test option off the bench, having been a member of the so-called “Geography Six” who were flown in four years ago to hold tackle bags in New Zealand. OK, but what if he twirls the baton so assuredly he simply cannot be ignored? And if he does start and the Lions have aspirations to play at a higher tempo, might that improve the chances of someone like Ali Price, Russell’s great mate and regular international half-back partner?
It has already done his prospects no harm that Russell’s Racing 92 were beaten by La Rochelle in the Top 14 semi-finals, allowing the Scot to join the Jersey boys a week earlier. And if he is going to play a major role, does that leave Owen Farrell vying for the 12 jersey? A Russell-Farrell axis might feel like an unlikely marriage but who knows? Between the pair of them – assuming they can dovetail – they theoretically have all the necessary skills an ambitious Test side could ask for.
That leaves outside centre, always such a key position. Will it be Henshaw or the versatile Elliot Daly, so highly rated by Gatland, or someone who six months ago would have been on few wait-lists. Gloucester’s Chris Harris has not been chosen ahead of Henry Slade and Jonathan Davies on a whim: the management clearly like his work-rate, defensive prowess and physicality. Could he prove as much of a selectorial masterstroke as some of the 1997 posse? Either way, a tour schedule kicking off in Scotland already promises more tartan interest in the Test series than its recent predecessors.