Nick Easter and Kyran Bracken have joined forces to produce the podcast Ruck It. With the Lions tour next year we asked Easter, former Quins and England No.8 and more latterly coach to the Sharks in South Africa, and Bracken, former Saracens and England scrum-half for their views. ADAM ELLIS listened in.
Rassie Erasmus remains at the helm but has ceded his head coach role to Jacques Nienaber, will that impact the world champions?
Nick Easter: Having been out there for 18 months with the Sharks and having conversations with members of the Springboks coaches whenever they came into our camp, I think Rassie will still very much be a figure around the team. He will be someone around camp as a sounding board for Jacques Nienaber, who I think will show his standout qualities as a defensive mind. He was a huge driver of their strong defence and has worked with Rassie a long time.
South African rugby is in a different state of affairs compared to the 1997 and 2009 Lions tours when all of the Springboks were playing in Super Rugby. One of the masterstrokes by Rassie was to bring the players in the northern hemisphere back into selection, the Duane Vermeulens, the Faf de Klerks, and those sorts of guys.
As far as the loss of Matt Proudfoot to England goes, I don’t think their scrum will be affected. He is obviously a top coach but his successor Daan Human is a guy I’ve spent time with and he has good emotional intelligence and great technical knowledge to take the Boks scrum even further.
Kyran Bracken: There is always a rebuilding after any World Cup and when you are reigning champions you are a target for every team. I remember on the 1997 tour after Rob Howley got injured and Ian McGeechan called me up, I did find there was a target on South Africa’s back.
I think it will be much of the same from them. I do, however, think the blend of players that the British & Irish Lions can pick from is unbelievable. Warren Gatland will have a very strong party going to South Africa.
Who should captain the Lions?
NE: For me there is only one choice for captain and that is Maro Itoje. He will have plenty of vocal and tactical leaders around him and is in much the same mould as Martin Johnson; he does his actions on the field and is respected the world over as being one of, if not, the most influential players in the world.
When you have him in the press conferences he can be the real poster boy, setting the standard for the team and what is required when you take on the Boks.
It is very different playing the Spingboks to playing New Zealand, they both have differing styles, they are ultra physical and you have to match them there before anything else. Itoje keeps getting better and better, keeps his feet on the ground, and he is in search of being the best player in the world.
I prefer to have the captain in the forwards and they have to be in condition to play the full 80 minutes of a Test match, because arguably the last ten minutes of a game is the most critical moment. Whenever a front row is made captain you know they are going to get subbed to keep the scrum fresh, those decisions usually baffle me in international rugby.
A lot can happen between now and the tour but naming Itoje captain is an easy decision.
KB: The captaincy is a little more complex than that. I have always wondered why Maro hasn’t had a crack of the whip with England at some stage – I know to some extent he is a co-captain – but if you were to compare him to Martin Johnson both have similar attributes and you would argue Maro is a lot more athletic. But Martin Johnson as a thinker of the game, understanding the ebbs and flows of a match, and making the big calls under pressure is such a big thing to do.
I would go with Alun Wyn Jones based on if he can keep up his form. To have not captained England and walk into a Lions Test might be a step too far for Maro.
NE: If the captain doesn’t end up being Maro or Alun Wyn, then it will be a surprise.
You are both well positioned to say who you would pick at No.8 and scrum-half for the Lions, who would you go with to partner up at the rear of the scrum?
NE: Taulupe Faletau. There are some outstanding back rowers to select from but Faletau is a proven Lion and will be in his prime at 30 years of age come next July. He just needs to avoid injuries because that has been an issue for him in the recent past. He was superb in the last two Lions tours, he didn’t play in the first two Tests against Australia in 2013 but started in the third and put in a performance which made you question why he missed the first two.
Against New Zealand in the second Test he turned the contest in the Lions’ favour with his try. He is the guy that can match the physicality of the South Africans and the nuances of the breakdown. He is the frontrunner at the moment for the No.8 position.
There are other younger players coming through, just look at Magnus Bradbury with Scotland. He is a real athlete and there are always these late bolters who find themselves on tours. Caelan Doris is also another player who would thrive in South African conditions, it was unfortunate to see him get concussed on his debut for Ireland in the Six Nations.
KB: On the No.8 point, a lot of people will say Billy Vunipola but he has been quite average with his performances and injury-stricken of late. When he is at his best he is the world’s best but Faletau has that consistency and that’s what you need for the Lions.
At scrum-half it’s interesting because I think the old guard are on their way out. Ben Youngs likely won’t get to tour and Conor Murray is on his last legs.
The No.9s which stand out to me are the trio the Welsh have; Gareth Davies is outstanding and had a good World Cup, when Rhys Webb hits form he can be a really good player, and Tomos Williams is a player who looks really dangerous to me.
Gatland will probably take a combination of Wales and Ireland players, possibly John Cooney, but I would like to see Ben Spencer given a chance or even Dan Robson.
The 9-10 combination is crucial. If you have someone like Gareth Davies, who has played in World Cups and on Lions tours it makes it a bit easier.
But if you throw in Cooney to play with Finn Russell and the Lions have their backs to the wall in a game, will they have enough about them to control things against the Boks?
There is one player who I feel has been massively hard done by in selection for his country and that is Danny Care.
He made the mistake of speaking his mind to Eddie Jones and questioning how he wanted him to play when he was playing with an England ‘B’ team against Japan in the autumn of 2018. Eddie’s response to that was ‘that’s not the attitude I want’ and he binned him from his plans.
Who has Eddie brought in since then? Richard Wigglesworth, who isn’t a patch on Danny Care.
Willi Heinz hasn’t really been given a chance and then Dan Robson has been in and out, so it’s been a bit of a mess.
For me, Care’s form in the Premiership last season was the best from a scrum-half statistically and in form. Don’t be too surprised if Warren Gatland takes a look at him because he doesn’t care whether you have one cap or 100 caps, he selects on form.
Warren Gatland incurred the wrath of Scotland fans in 2017 for not selecting a single Scot in any of his Test squads to face the All Blacks. Outside of Stuart Hogg, does anyone else stand a chance in 2021?
KB: Finn Russell could very well start against the Springboks, Hogg will definitely start at full-back. I saw that Russell was ranked as the best fly-half in the world by Opta, who do the statistics for the Premiership and Champions Cup, and he is the most natural No.10 in Europe.
I guess the question is when you play against South Africa do you want to play a structured game using someone like Owen Farrell, or do you want to play with someone who has some X-factor in attack? If Gatland goes with Russell in selecting the squad then he will probably omit George Ford and Farrell could end up sitting on the bench.
NE: Hamish Watson has shown major consistency at openside for Scotland.
Rory Sutherland had a terrific Six Nations and is a very hard man as well. He has been through a lot with a tough upbringing and in rugby, too, with his serious groin injury.
He will be up against Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge and Joe Marler just from England alone, that’s before I’ve even mentioned Cian Healy. It is a position that we have world class talent in.
I know Jonny Gray has signed for Exeter in a move to help his international ambitions and further his career. They will certainly give him an added edge the way they rely on their pack.
As Bill Beaumont seeks to re-align both hemispheres to share a similar club and international calendar after being re-elected, is there still a place for the Lions in a ‘global calendar’?
KB: I think so. Lions tours are the jewel in rugby’s crown but everyone wants a slice of the cake and because of that you are seeing tours getting smaller. But I think they are safe because of the revenue the tours generate for the host unions, as long as the television money, the sponsorships and ticket sales remain as they are.
From the players’ point of view they are going to value a Lions shirt and a Lions cap much more than they are going to for their unions and for their clubs, and that brings a power to them to try and stop the tours being shoe-horned into the calendar. We don’t want to see Lions tours become a one-Test series and there would be uproar by players if something like that ever was proposed. It is a special part of the calendar to look forward to every four years, it is rugby’s own version of The Ashes.
I find it hilarious that New Zealand, South Africa and Australia all voted for Gus Pichot. He wanted to enforce a lot of change and make the game more equitable and there is a real jealousy among southern hemisphere countries about the success the Six Nations is.
NE: I do not believe in a global season for Rugby Union. It is a winter sport which should tail into spring and early summer. It already provides many challenges from a logistical point with moving personnel and equipment from place to place.
What is bigger than that is where will the next generation of England players find inspiration if the professional game is not being aired on TV during school terms? Community clubs, too, who play from September through to April, will have no Six Nations, no Premiership to watch to give them players to see and want to emulate them.
There is not much wrong with things the way they are, but there are too many games being played. It just needs better commercialisation, because if we get that then clubs don’t have to rely so much on ticket sales which is always going to be limited given most Premiership clubs have attendances similar to football’s League One and League Two.
You can market rugby and see the pay-off, just look at the World Cup. England saw their profile shoot up due to the backgrounds of Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Ellis Genge. They are not the usual rugby stories and they are much more accessible than footballers.
These guys are key to getting more money from broadcast rights because that’s what American sports and the Premier League finances hinge on.