THE 2021 Lions are so mob-handed at wing that it gives Warren Gatland one of the sternest selection jobs in any position as he hunts for strike-runners with the magic to win the series against the world champion Springboks.
The pre-requisite is that the players in the 11 and 14 shirts are devastating finishers who take not just every chance, but every half-chance, because South Africa have never been generous when it comes to presenting touring sides with scoring opportunities.
The Lions coach has a head start in being able to select six of the eight back three players he took to New Zealand in 2017, with his Test back three trio of wings Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly and full-back/wing Liam Williams in their prime, and still available.
The same is true of Jack Nowell and George North, as well as another full-back/wing, Leigh Halfpenny – the player of the series down under in 2013.
Gatland has an additional former Lions wing to take into account in Sean Maitland, 31, who toured Australia in 2013, but was kept out of the Test team by North and Alex Cuthbert.
Maitland’s two tries in Scotland’s Six Nations win over France will have done his chances a power of good, however, and he will go into the Lions selection mix behind prolific finishers like Jonny May (England), Josh Adams (Wales), and Jacob Stockdale (Ireland).
Among the younger contenders jousting for a first Lions tour are Joe Cokanasiga (22) – pending the big English-Fijian wing’s return to full fitness after missing most of the season with a knee injury.
Jordan Larmour (23), the Leinster and Ireland wing/full-back (5ft 10ins, 14st/89kg) and Blair Kinghorn (23), his Edinburgh and Scotland counterpart (6ft 4ins, 16st 11lbs/107kg), have also put themselves in the picture by becoming Six Nations starters this season.
1. Josh Adams (Wales)
2. Jonny May (England)
3. Anthony Watson (England)
4. Elliot Daly (England)
5. Jacob Stockdale (Ireland)
Cokanasiga’s injury issues meant he did not make the impact he wanted to the 2019 World Cup, but he has done enough already to suggest that fully-primed, despite having played little more than a handful of Tests for England, he could cause the Springboks the same sort of headaches that North gave the the Wallabies in 2013.
At 6ft 3ins and 17st 9lbs/112kg, Cokanasiga has the pace, power and size to make a Lions breakthrough – but only if he shows the maturity and consistency over the course of the coming season to make the most of his natural attributes.
May, Adams, and Stockdale have yet to go on a Lions tour, but they have shown since 2017 that they can not only thrive as finishers in the rarefied atmosphere of Test rugby, but excel.
May (6ft 2ins, 14st 2lb/90kg) is the most experienced of the trio by a distance at 30, and is England’s leading try scorer during Eddie Jones’ tenure with 21 tries – of which he has scored 19 in his last 26 Tests. His last two brilliant virtuoso touchdowns against France in Paris were conjured from thin air, and startling speed and exceptional reading of the game make him impossible to ignore.
Adams’ impact in his first two years at Test level for Wales has been eye-catching, notching 14 tries in 24 Tests. The 25-year-old’s rapid pump-action running and lethal execution saw him crowned as the top try scorer in the 2019 World Cup, with seven, including a hat-trick against Fiji.
Adams (6ft 1ins, 14st 11lb/94kg) has the priceless knack of being in the right place at the right time, and he finished the tournament one try in front of his main rival, South Africa wing Makazole Mapimpi.
Adams and Mapimpi (6ft, 14st 5lb/91kg) last played against each other in the World Cup semi-final, and could be doing so again a year from now – although Ulster’s Stockdale (6ft 3ins, 16st 3lbs/103kg) will have no intention of being a wallflower.
The long-striding Stockdale, 24, has an impressive tally of 16 tries in 28 appearances for Ireland, including a superb solo chip-and-chase effort in Ireland’s landmark victory over New Zealand in Dublin in 2018.
The permutations are almost endless, but Gatland provided the template of his back three policy in the Lions squad for New Zealand when he picked four wing/full-backs (Williams, Nowell, Watson and Halfpenny), only two specialist wings (North and Tommy Seymour), one centre/wing (Elliot Daly), one centre/full-back (Jared Payne), and one full-back (Stuart Hogg).
If we start by putting Williams into the full-back camp alongside Hogg (more of which next week), that leaves six more places for wings, or wing/ full-backs.
Given their versatility and previous Lions laurels in 2017, Watson and Daly look well-placed, while Adams, May and Stockdale, all of whom are wing specialists, are jostling for a first tour.
Given that Stockdale lost some traction at the World Cup, where May and Adams did not, they are probably best placed to get in ahead of both the Ulsterman and North.
The options offered by Kinghorn, Larmour and Andrew Conway, another Irishman who can play wing/full-back, are persuasive – but Nowell, who acquitted himself well in a Lions shirt three years ago, is equally versatile and strong in defence.
The governing factor is form, because wings with red-hot scoring streaks between now and next April/May will attract Gatland’s attention. So will their ability to scramble, and to tackle South Africa to a standstill.
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