Sir Ian picks his B&I Lions to beat Springboks
SPOTLIGHT: British and Irish Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan believes he knows how to overcome the Springboks, a feat he has achieved as a player and a coach.
McGeechan sat down with BBC Sport‘s Tom English to share some of his insight as he handpicked his fantasy 15 for the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.
As a player, McGeechan helped the Lions secure victory over South Africa in the tour of 1974, considered one of the greatest.
Then after hanging up his boots, he went on to coach the Lions to another victorious SA tour in 1997, an expedition that merited another high echelon for the British.
In the 2009 tour, he coached the Lions to play some top class rugby despite going down two-one to the world champions.
McGeechan says South Africa is the most unique of Lions tours.
“The crowds are intimidating, there’s the Afrikaner on the highveld, there’s the relentless physicality.
“Martin Johnson [McGeechan’s captain in 1997] always said that players can only talk about being in a really physical game after they’d played the Springboks in their own backyard. It’s just different there,” he told the BBC.
‘You need Test-Match Animals’
McGeechan knows exactly what he’s looking for in a player for this particular match, and odds are British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland insists on the same characteristics.
“You don’t beat the Springboks physically, but you manage them physically so you can win somewhere else. We did that in 1974 and, in 1997, we moved their powerful forwards around the pitch and played away from them. In 2009, we didn’t win the series but the South Africans said they couldn’t read the rugby we were playing at times.
“Technically and tactically the game moves on, but the principle remains the same – the more decision-makers you have in the team the better. This is why I used the phrase ‘Test-Match Animal’ – you’re looking for a player who has another level he can go to mentally and technically under pressure.
“Stopping South Africa’s momentum was the key in 1974 and it’s still the key to this day. Force your opponent to play a game they didn’t anticipate playing, a game they didn’t see in their heads. You’re looking for guys who have the confidence and ability to make things happen. Pre-programmed players can’t do that. You need special players.”
THE BACK THREE:
Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Anthony Watson (England) & Liam Williams (Wales)
“The Test team you think you will have never actually materialises,” says McGeechan. “Players always come through, but for now I’d definitely have those three. Hogg has been playing great rugby and is in. I’d definitely have Watson. He’s great under the high ball, has unbelievable feet and would be outstanding on hard South African grounds. Liam is the one I’d go for on the left wing.
“There are others – Jordan Larmour, Jonny May, Josh Adams, George North, Andrew Conway – and one I’d be really thinking about is Elliot Daly, a really good footballer who can play in any position in the back three but he also kicks goals from halfway. With two games at altitude it that means that 10m inside your own half is in his range so that forces South Africa to have a real discipline because they know he can hurt them.”
Jonathan Davies (Wales), Manu Tuilagi (England)
Davies is McGeechan’s outside centre even though he was injured and missed the Six Nations. The Welshman was Lions player of the series three years ago in New Zealand. He was also in top form for Wales in 2019, their latest Grand Slam year.
“He’d be my pick, if fit. If he’s not, it’s likely to be Henry Slade,” McGeechan says. “I really rate his decision-making. I think he would excel with the Lions. At 12, I have to go with Manu. There’s such power there. And you’ll need that.”
Owen Farrell (England)
McGeechan has a shortlist here of Farrell, Dan Biggar and Finn Russell. Farrell comes first because of his control of a game, his big-match temperament and his dead-eye goalkicking.
“Johnny Sexton has been a magnificent player but he hasn’t played really well for quite some time and he’ll be 35 in July,” he explains. “George Ford has played well for England, particularly when on the front foot, but the real test, as he discovered in the World Cup final, is how a fly-half performs on the back foot and he has something to work on.
“Farrell and Biggar can manage a game behind a struggling pack, so they’ll be very important. Finn just gives you something very different. It would be fascinating to see him on a Lions tour from the start.”
Gareth Davies (Wales)
“I have four on my list and only three will probably go,” McGeechan says. “There’s Davies and Rhys Webb from Wales, Conor Murray from Ireland, and Ali Price from Scotland.
“Murray has not been himself for a while now and that’s a concern. I’d really like to see Price coming through because I enjoy the way he plays. But if I had to call it, I’d say Davies. He’s a terrific player.”
Rory Sutherland (Scotland)
McGeechan calls this man a “bolter”. And that’s enough said.
“There’s a huge amount of competition… Ellis Genge and Mako Vunipola from England… Cian Healy from Ireland and Wyn Jones from Wales… I have to go with Sutherland. He’s been absolutely brilliant. He’s not just a good technical rugby player, he can play, he can run, he makes an impact. His story is an incredible one. I’d love to see him kick on.”
Jamie George (England)
“Right now, I’d say there are four clear candidates, but all of this can change,” McGeechan says. “There’s Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie, there’s Ken Owens and there’s Stuart McInally.
“Three hookers will travel, but I think George is the pick of them. Fantastic consistency, tough, good set-piece performer, just a very solid character. He will take some shifting.”
Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
McGeechan: “He’s not had a brilliant season but he’s such a good player and in these circumstances, you would get the best out of him. He’d rise to the challenge. He’s done it before.”
Maro Itoje (England) & James Ryan (Ireland)
So many options here, McGeechan is laughing. Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Joe Launchbury of England; Iain Henderson and James Ryan of Ireland; Alun Wyn Jones of Wales; Grant Gilchrist of Scotland.
“It’s a wealth of talent,” he says. “Itoje is definitely one of them and I’d bracket him as a possible captain. He’s a hell of a competitor. When you watch him, he’s into everything. He reads things so well, he’s niggling, he leads by example. He’s a really intelligent lad and a really intelligent rugby player.
“A lot of people would probably go for Alun Wyn alongside him, but I wouldn’t. Alun Wyn would be an outstanding off-field captain, a standard-setter, a senior figure, but with another year on the clock and some of the other talent that’s out there I’d go somewhere else for Maro’s partner. And that would be James Ryan – another very bright guy, another very hard and driven player with a massive work ethic.
“Those two could be unbelievable. They are two natural leaders and I’d be intrigued to see how their chemistry evolves on a Lions tour.”
Jamie Ritchie (Scotland)
“Lawes (Courtney) is very close – he’s getting better and better at six,” McGeechan says. “There’s also the argument about having an extra player in the lineout against SA and he’s strong there. But I’d go with Ritchie. He’s tough, mobile, into everything. He’s a carrier, a leader, he’s improving game on game and I think he could be outstanding in a Lions jersey.”
Tom Curry (England)
Options aplenty include: Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson, Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, and Curry who gets the nod even though he’s been playing at number eight for the injured Billy Vunipola.
“A very clever player, a relentless guy with a huge engine. He’d come into his own in a Lions environment,” he says.
Billy Vunipola (England)
“If I was picking on this season’s Six Nations, I’d go with CJ Stander,” says McGeechan. “If everybody was 100 percent fit, I’d go with Vunipola.
“There are options. Taulupe Faletau is coming back into it, Nick Haining has really impressed me and Caelan Doris is one to watch very closely. He was unlucky with injury but he might well come through over the next 12 months and overtake everybody. He’s an outstanding young talent.
“It’s hard to look past a fit Billy, though. Ritchie, Curry and Vunipola would be a very exciting back-row but you could go Lawes, Watson, Doris or Stander, Tipuric, Faletau. You could have a dozen combinations.”
Source: Tom English, BBC Scotland