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Lions tour contenders RANKED – Gatland has such riches in key No.7 role

England flanker Sam Underhill

OPENSIDE flanker is an area where the 2021 Lions will hope to steal a march on South Africa. The Springbok back row mantra has historically leaned heavily towards ‘big is beautiful’, and consequently their two flankers are often very close in terms of size, speed, and the skills they bring.

By contrast, the openside/breakaway tradition in Britain and Ireland – and also in New Zealand and Australia – is more specialist. Although there are some variations in physique, overall British and Irish No.7s tend to be shorter than the South African flankers, with the emphasis on fast, powerful raiders who are destructive tacklers, first to any ball that goes to ground, and very effective in attack as support runners.

Lions coach Warren Gatland has options galore in one of the most influential positions on the pitch.

Gatland favours opensides who are quick, physical and smart – hence his decision to make the Wales No.7, Sam Warburton, his captain for the 2013 and 2017 tours.


Nick Cain’s ranking of who should start at openside flanker for the British & Irish Lions in 2021

  1. Sam Underhill (England)
  2. Tom Curry (England)
  3. Justin Tipuric (Wales)
  4. Hamish Watson (Scotland)
  5. Josh van der Flier (Ireland)

Gatland knows that Wales alone can supply four candidates, with Justin Tipuric (6ft 2ins, 15st 8lbs/99kg) and Josh Navidi (6ft 1ins, 16st 7lbs/105kg) as main contenders and Ellis Jenkins (6ft, 16st 3lbs/103kg) and Thomas Young (5ft 11ins, 15st 6lbs/98kg) as outside bets.

He knows, too, that the England duo of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry – both of whom are genuine opensides, despite Curry’s recent deployment at No.8 and blindside – have the most impressive laurels of the lot.

That is a consequence of the breakdown masterclass they produced in England’s 2019 World Cup semi-final victory over New Zealand. The All Blacks are very rarely outplayed in the loose, but they were comprehensively beaten in their area of greatest strength thanks in large part to the efforts of Underhill (6ft 1ins, 16st 3lbs/103kg) and Curry (6ft 1ins, 17st 4lbs/110kg), and it denied them a foothold in the game.

That South Africa were able to turn the tables on the English pair in the World Cup final – much of it because the Red Rose scrum base was twisted out of shape and in retreat – will make them all the more eager to settle the score by making the 2021 Lions back row selection.

Ireland and Scotland are also in the chase for the seven shirt. Leinster’s Josh van der Flier (6ft, 16st 7lbs/105kg) and Dan Leavy (6ft 3ins, 16st 5lbs/104kg) have made their mark for Ireland at international level already.

Ireland flanker Josh van der Flier
Contender: Josh van der Flier has risen to the task for Ireland after Dan Leavy’s knee injury. Michael Steele/Getty Images

Leavy’s physicality and mobility could be tailor-made for South African conditions as long as he can get back the form he showed before an 18- month absence following two operations on a knee ligament injury.

Hamish Watson (6ft 1ins, 16st 3lbs/103kg), Scotland’s all-action breakaway, is another fast and furious competitor who could be a very handy asset on the dry South African grounds, especially as the first and third Tests will be played on the high veld in Johannesburg.

It will not be lost on the Lions selectors that Watson’s Edinburgh team-mate, Jamie Ritchie (6ft 4ins, 17st/108kg), is versatile enough to challenge at openside, as well as blindside. Lions and Springbok openside flankers may differ in that the South Africans put the fast man in a No.6 jersey and call him a ‘fetcher’, whereas the Lions rovers wear 7, but what they share in common is their influence at the breakdown/ruck, which is the main source of possession in any match.

They are at a premium because of their capacity to dominate this area. The ability of flankers to stay on their feet and rip the ball to win a turn-over, or win a penalty for no release, or legitimately slow down the recycle to thwart opposition quick ball, will be as decisive in the coming series as it was in the last two series between the Lions and the Springboks in 1997 and 2009.

In 1997 Richard Hill, with Neil Back off the bench, helped the Lions to get a crucial edge over Ruben Kruger, and his towering back-up, Fritz van Heerden. The tables were turned in 2009 when a South African little-and-large combo of nuggety Heinrich Brussouw, and big units Schalk Burger and Danie Rossouw, had just enough to get a split decision over the Lions and Ireland openside, David Wallace.

Siya Kolisi, the 2019 Springbok world champion captain, is not a classic openside in the Lions mould, but, at 6ft 2ins and 16st 7lbs/105kg, he is a strong all-rounder, and formed an effective flanking partnership with Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Following Francois Louw’s retirement there are also bench options in fetcher Kwagga Smith (5ft 11ins, 15st/95kg) and bruising Toulouse flanker Rynhardt Elstadt (6ft 4ins, 18st/115kg).

The openside element of the 2021 Lions-South Africa series promises to be another intriguing clash of back row cultures, and one that will again prove decisive in the outcome.

NICK CAIN

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