Exactly a year from now – assuming their tour window is unchanged – the British and Irish Lions will be packing their bags for a trip like no other. Not only will the Lions’ expedition to southern Africa consist of only eight games but they are planning for it in the middle of a global pandemic. Warren Gatland, as head coach, must feel like the pilot of a light aircraft seeking to land on a tiny strip of grass beneath a range of vast, forbidding mountains.
Given we barely know what next week will hold – never mind 2021 – it is important not to get too carried away. What looks obvious now may look absurdly fanciful in 12 months. And how, exactly, is a player supposed to lay down a strong early marker to tackle the world champions when there has been no competitive rugby in the northern hemisphere for months? Almost everyone is a relatively unknown quantity. This creates an obvious inherent danger: picking on reputation is never the recipe for a properly roaring Lions team.
Almost every successful party has had bolters who emerged at the 11th hour; who would have predicted that Peter O’Mahony would end up captaining the Lions in the first Test in New Zealand in 2017 with Ben Te’o in midfield or – going a little further back – that John Bentley, Tom Smith and Matt Dawson would play such pivotal roles on tour in South Africa in 1997?
On the other hand, Gatland and his assistants no longer have the luxury of half a dozen fixtures before the first Test in which to experiment. The 2021 tourists are currently due to set off only 24 hours after the Premiership final, with their first game against the Stormers in Cape Town taking place six days later. While there is a warm-up game against Japan pencilled in for Murrayfield on that same weekend in late June, the entire party will barely have time to clock Table Mountain before they are into the thick of it.
No gentle looseners on this tour, then. And that is before you consider two of the three Tests will be at altitude and the touring side’s players having played rugby, with little in the way of a proper break, since the previous August. Or the fact their coach is currently based in New Zealand and his planned advance recce to South Africa has had to be cancelled. Zoom has its advantages but the logistical challenges are already mounting.
Three particular areas, one suspects, will make or break the Test series. The first is assembling a pack that can withstand the physicality that is assuredly coming. As the Springboks underlined in last year’s World Cup final demolition of England, they are not afraid to play to their strengths. If beasting the Lions up front becomes the primary objective so be it. Gatland will need durable warriors and defensive powerhouses but he will also need some dynamism. Setting out simply to soak up punishment will not be enough.
The second will surround his blend of playmakers. In certain positions the Lions are spoiled for choice, not least in the back five of the scrum, where even a fit Billy Vunipola will have to crank things up to make the tour, never mind the Test side. Taulupe Faletau, Caelan Doris, Tom Curry, Dan Leavy, Jamie Ritchie, Sam Underhill, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty, Hamish Watson, Sam Simmonds: even before you get to young guns such as Ellis Jenkins and Jack Willis or a wildcard like Exeter’s hard-hitting giant, Dave Ewers, there are umpteen options.
At half-back, though, the Lions will need a pairing capable, at the very least, of matching Faf de Klerk and Handré Pollard. If Owen Farrell is to be deployed at inside-centre and it ends up being a tour too far for Johnny Sexton, Gatland must decide whether or not to lob the tactical keys to the gifted Finn Russell. The Scottish fly-half could be a match-winner but only if he feels trusted and is surrounded by the right lieutenants. It puts an even greater onus on finding a tactically excellent scrum-half with a strong kicking game and a complementary midfield combo. Easier, perhaps, to start with Farrell, Dan Biggar or George Ford at No 10 and invite Russell to rip it up in midweek, particularly if Racing 92 are involved in the Top 14 play-offs. Simpler but a potentially significant waste of talent.
And as Gatland begins to weigh up his best No 9 candidates – opportunity could knock for John Cooney and Tomos Williams should Conor Murray and Rhys Webb not rediscover their best form by Christmas – there is also the small but crucial task of picking his assistants. His trusted recent comrades – Rob Howley, Shaun Edwards and Steve Borthwick – all currently have other priorities while Andy Farrell, Ireland’s head coach, may also feel the need to concentrate on his day job. If Scotland’s Gregor Townsend were to be involved, would that be guaranteed to bring the best out of Russell?
It would not be the biggest shock if Gatland concludes that in England’s John Mitchell and Matt Proudfoot, a former Scotland international prop, he has two candidates with so much detailed knowledge of South Africa and their players that it would be foolhardy to ignore them. Invite Stuart Lancaster, with his English and Irish connections, and Sam Warburton to be backs coach and breakdown coach respectively and he would have almost every base covered.
Which leaves perhaps the most straightforward decision of the lot: a skipper with the respect of both sides, certain to make the Test team and capable of being the kind of inspirational figure rugby badly needs right now. Alun Wyn Jones and Owen Farrell will be in the conversation but even Gatland himself has already name-checked Maro Itoje. The sight of Itoje shaking hands with Siya Kolisi before the first Test of the series, at the 90,000-plus capacity Soccer City stadium on the edge of Soweto, would be hugely symbolic and give every pathetic racist out there a conspicuous hand-off. Covid‑19 permitting, the 2021 Lions tour will be brief but, potentially, very special.