Warren Gatland has always sought the white heat of the Six Nations decision-makers when it comes to finalizing outstanding picks for the British and Irish Lions squads. Rugby fans can book British lions 2021 tickets on our website at exclusively discounted prices.
The most famous example of this was Wales’ victory over England in Cardiff in 2013. By winning the title, Wales not only denied England a Grand Slam, but the form of their 30-3 victory solved a number of key problems. Selection for Gatland before the Australian tour.
“It’s a situation where you want to see players under pressure, and that’s what we’re going to face in Australia,” Gatland said before the game.
Alex Cuthbert and Justin Tipuric were two of several Welsh players chosen for the tour as a result, while Chris Robshaw was the highest-profile of the English contingent who would miss it.
Four years later, there was an equally shocking climax for the championship, when Ireland defeated a team from England pursuing a second successive Grand Slam in Dublin. Peter O’Mahony, who had only reached the starting XV when Jamie Heaslip retired with a back injury in the warm-up, Iain Henderson and CJ Stander won the selection after the 13-9 win, with O’Mahony moving on to be captain. The Lions in the first Test against the All Blacks.
Next year’s Six Nations will undoubtedly prove equally conclusive for several players when Gatland finalizes his team for the South African tour. And yet a closer look at his picks for the last two tours, and the previous tour of South Africa in 2009, when he had a key role as strikers coach, shows that this fall’s internationals will also likely have significant influence.
It was a sweeping debut for Andrew Powell against South Africa in November 2008 that made Cardiff No. 8 stands out and caught the attention of Gatland, and he became a colorful and popular member of the South African tour. Ugo Monye and Riki Flutey also debuted for England that fall, with Monye starting Test 1 against the Springboks and Flutey played a key role in Test’s third victory in Johannesburg.
England’s impressive victory over the All Blacks four years later had a similar impact for Tom Youngs, who had made his debut that fall, and Geoff Parling, who was in his first year of international rugby. Youngs started the first two Tests, Parling the second and third, as the series was won 2-1.
The fall of 2016 was even more shocking, with Tadhg Furlong launching onto the world stage as an outstanding hard-headed mainstay after just a handful of starts when Ireland defeated New Zealand and Australia, prompting influential commentators to link him to the Lions selection.
England was the main beneficiary this time, however, when Ben Te’o and Elliot Daly debuted that fall and played for the Lions Test team.
Kyle Sinckler also got into Gatland’s considerations after making his substitute debut for England that fall in victories over South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia and made the test team for all three games against the All Blacks.
Jamie George also did enough off the bench to convince Gatland to pick him ahead of Dylan Hartley as one of three hookers and he finished as the test hooker. Which brings us to the start of the inaugural Fall Nations Cup, which begins on Friday night with Ireland entertaining Wales in Dublin. Will the opportunity call again during the next month?
It could be argued that the absence of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina due to the Covid-19 pandemic will have reduced the competitive intensity that players are exposed to.
And yet the staging of what is effectively a Six Nations-plus tournament could also be seen as a glorious month-long test of the Lions, providing Gatland with valuable information and data on how his “likely”, “possible” and “bolters” match in head-to-head context.
Gatland will undoubtedly use the Six Nations performances next year as the ultimate decider, but never before has a Lions coach had the luxury of scrutinizing so many internationals among local unions in the same season, and this fall too. There is a competitive advantage, with a cup at stake for the first time.
The evolution of the respective teams in the year after the World Cup brings an additional advantage to Gatland. Each team is already in the process of bleeding new faces, but this fall they will fight not with their Southern Hemisphere counterparts but directly with potential rivals for the Lions team.
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