With the British and Irish Lions tour party to South Africa set to be announced on May 6, most of the squad will already be nailed on through their performances in the Six Nations and elsewhere.
However, despite the back-row riches Warren Gatland has at his disposal, Ben Kay believes, in true Lions style, that one bolter is sure to be named – Exeter’s electric number eight, Sam Simmonds, despite Eddie Jones and England finding him surplus to requirements in recent times.
“It’s safe to say Sam doesn’t fit into England’s game plan right now,” explained Kay.
Variety of skills
“Eddie has built his England side around a certain game plan from the players that he feels delivers certain skills. Within that, he has tended to go for big eights that get momentum in traffic supporting by two destructive tacklers, which isn’t the way Exeter use Simmonds.
“There’s not too many bolters around, but Sam offers a variety of skills that others perhaps can’t match. The Lions will have some high-quality backs playing a fast tempo of rugby and Simmonds’ ability firstly to dent defences physically, but also to support at pace running down the middle of the pitch is almost unique in the British game.
“When people have discussed the likely make up of the back-row and back five of the scrummage, I hear a lot of people discussing lineout concerns and the disparity in size in terms of the height of the Springboks and the Lions and saying this counts against Sam. Yes, they’ve got some serious units in the likes of their locks and back-row, but valuing lineout presence on sheer vertical inches is completely missing the point,” Kay noted.
“The modern lineout catch can be broken down into three key areas; speed across the ground, speed into the jump and the relative height that the player can be lifted to. If you look at the assets the Lions have, Maro Itoje’s speed of movement across the ground in changing the point of lift and the organisation of the pod is absolutely brilliant and is far more important than sheer height in ball winning. Alun Wyn Jones ability to make himself big and get himself across the air at the front means he’s as safe as houses and he’ll use his huge experience to secure banker ball all day long at the front.
“On the topic of speed to the jump, both Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau’s ability to get high from their spring and then be light enough to enable lifters to get them right up there shows just how important athletic ability is over size.
“If you then couple this with the options of using either utility forwards, Courtney Lawes or Tadhg Beirne as specialist blindsides, I have to say that I see the lineout as an opportunity rather than an issue for the Lions, and that we have the assets available to also allow Sam Simmonds at 5’11” to be included in the various squads,” concluded Kay.
“A few judges have mentioned in the press that with the make of the coaches that the lack of an English presence might affect the chances of some of the England fringe Lions and Simmonds, but I don’t buy that at all. Yes, the coaches will have their favourites and that’s only natural, but Warren has been around for some 12 years now and knows the English players and their abilities just as well as he does his former Welsh charges and he’ll be well aware of the value Sam brings.
“There’s not going to be many surprises in the squad, it’ll be picked on both experience and form, but when it comes to the latter, Simmonds is almost out on his own in terms of the last 18 months of rugby and I fully expect him to be named come the 6th of May.”
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