One of the most eagerly awaited moments of a British & Irish Lions tour is the team announcement before the first test, writes Angus Oliver.
It isn’t any team announcement. It resembles the culmination of four years of anticipation to see how rugby’s four oldest nations will combine and duel Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
Next year the Lions take on the latter: South Africa, the world champions. But how will England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales gel to successfully overcome them?
The home nations’ summer tours - cancelled due to Covid-19 - would have provided the latest indication of what Warren Gatland’s XV will look like in a year’s time; particularly for Scotland’s hopefuls who were set for two tests against next year’s tour hosts.
To paint the picture via alternative means, the data gurus at Opta, part of Stats Perform, have created a list of the top-30 English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh international performers since 2019.
The list was created via an algorithm which analyses every action (carry, tackle, etc) of every home nations player, and awards a point value to that action based on its relevance in the match context. For the purpose of creating two XVs, only two players for each position were selected in the list. The only prerequisite for selection was for each player to have made more than eight international appearances during the two-year period.
So who will face Pieter-steph Du Toit, Faf du Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe and co? Here’s what the stats say:
Stuart Hogg, Scotland (2nd XV: Liam Williams, Wales)
Since 2019, Scotland’s new captain has made more metres (806) than all but Wales’s Josh Adams (837). A freak eye injury cut short the two-time Six Nations player of the tournament’s tour in 2017.
Anthony Watson, England (2nd XV: Blair Kinghorn, Scotland)
Though Watson has made less carries than any of Opta’s top-ranked backs, his average gain (7.9m) is higher than anyone else’s. He started all three tests against New Zealand in 2017.
Garry Ringrose, Ireland (2nd XV: Manu Tuilagi, England)
Opta’s algorithm overlooked the injured Jonathan Davies, the 2017 Lions player of the series and a Gatland favourite. Ringrose nevertheless has 102 carries and beaten 30 defenders since 2019 and will offer stiff competition.
Owen Farrell, England (2nd XV: Sam Johnson, Scotland)
The only question is whether he plays at 10 or 12? Farrell has more points (188) and tackles (156) than any of Opta’s top-30 performers since 2019. He toured Australia in 2013 and New Zealand in 2017.
Jonny May, England (2nd XV: Josh Adams, Wales)
Of home nations players, only Adams (13) has scored more tries than May’s 11 since 2019. With lightning pace, May has also beaten more defenders (40) than any of Opta’s top performers during that period.
Finn Russell, Scotland (2nd XV: Dan Biggar, Wales)
Gregor Townsend spat aside, Russell is comfortably Opta’s top performer since 2019. In that period he averaged 0.9 try assists per game, but will his tackling (68%) be up to a very physical South Africa?
We caught up with the great Willie John McBride to talk all things Lions this week.— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) June 6, 2020
Enjoy his thoughts on life, the Lions and how he hasn't 'an ache or a pain' to worry about as he celebrates turning 80!#WillieJohnAt80 #WillieJohnMcBride pic.twitter.com/wCNdwoZVei
Ben Youngs, England (2nd XV: Conor Murray, Ireland)
Youngs has an eye for a break and has rekindled his form. Murray meanwhile averages more try assists per game (1.0) than any Tier 1 player (5+ apps) since 2019. A starting berth nevertheless could be anyone’s.
Mako Vunipola, England (2nd XV: Dave Kilcoyne, Ireland)
Vunipola is Opta’s top-ranked prop since 2019, and if fit will bring the experience of playing in the last six Lions tests. Many tip Scotland’s Rory Sutherland as another option, but he was overlooked by Opta’s algorithm as he hasn’t played eight times since 2019.
Jamie George, England (2nd XV: Stuart McInally, Scotland)
George’s throwing consistency (93% since 2019) will be crucial for the Lions to compete with a very slick South African line out. He also offers a 95% tackle rate and is powerful with ball in hand.
Tadhg Furlong, Ireland (2nd XV: Kyle Sinckler, England)
Furlong was a standout performer against the All Blacks in 2017, and has four tries since 2019 - the most of Opta’s top-ranked forwards. Sinckler only goes from strength to strength though, and arguably offers more with his versatility.
Maro Itoje, England (2nd XV: Alun Wyn Jones, Wales)
Arguably the first name on the team sheet. With 21 turnovers and 91% tackling success since 2019, Itoje is probably the best player in the world right now. Played in all three tests in 2017.
James Ryan, Ireland (2nd XV: Jonny Gray, Scotland)
At 6ft 8in Ryan is an omnipresent line out threat and Opta’s third top-ranked player. He is also a physical ball carrier and shares a 96% tackle success rate with Opta’s second choice, Gray.
Tom Curry, England (2nd XV: Magnus Bradbury, Scotland)
Of Opta’s top performers, only Alun Wyn Jones (244) has made more tackles than Curry (212) since 2019. He is intelligent and a physical ball carrier, and you wouldn’t bet against him starting.
Hamish Watson, Scotland (2nd XV: Jamie Ritchie, Scotland)
With 98% tackling success and 25 defenders beaten in just nine appearances, Watson is Opta’s top-ranked forward since 2019. Ritchie meanwhile, who Sir Ian McGeechan picked in his best Lions team, has made 17 turnovers and beaten 16 defenders.
CJ Stander, Ireland (2nd XV: Billy Vunipola, England)
Of Opta’s top performers, only Vunipola (198) has made more carries than Stander (175). They are both bullish competitors, but Gatland will need Vunipola stay fit, and Stander to retain his form.