British & Irish Lions

Brian O'Driscoll's favoured Lions XV: Would they beat the Boks?

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Maro Itoje
Maro Itoje
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  • Brian O'Driscoll would place England lock Maro Itoje at blindside flank to try to neutralise Pieter-Steph du Toit.
  • The Irishman opted for a broadly England-heavy Lions XV, with all eight of his choices from that nation's Rugby World Cup 2019 final losers to South Africa.
  • Whoever packs down at tighthead for the Boks might encounter a "mystery Scot" in the Lions' No 1 shirt.

He is a legend of four British and Irish Lions tours, once as captain, and played a record 133 times for Ireland … so Brian O'Driscoll's rugby views carry weight.

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Even so, when the midfield wizard picked his ideal Lions XV to tackle the World Cup-holding Springboks in the first of three Tests on our shores in mid-2021, he was simply one of many pundits to be putting an early toe in the selection water.

Yet, it is still an interesting exercise to weigh up, roughly a year in advance, whether his preferred combination - revealed on Irish radio show Off The Ball a few days ago - would have the beating of the current world champions.

For starters, it may not be the worst news for the Boks to learn the now 41-year-old O'Driscoll has strong faith in many England players (eight, in total) who had all played in the RWC 2019 final, which South Africa won by a decisive 32-12 margin in Japan.

The rest of his mix is made up of three Welshmen, two Irish compatriots and a further pair from Scotland.

Clearly, O'Driscoll is a subscriber to the view that England effectively played its World Cup "final" a week early when they deservedly beat the All Blacks 19-7 in a pulsating semi, and then failed to deliver on best potential a week onward against a Bok outfit widely perceived as underdogs - but ruthless on the day.

He opts for four English stars in each of his Lions pack and backline, although there are three intriguing positional changes from the RWC showpiece: he has versatile Owen Farrell at flyhalf rather than inside centre, which also means that O'Driscoll brings muscular Manu Tuilagi slightly infield from No 13 to the key No 12 channel.

That would give the Lions great physical sturdiness at both pivot and inside centre … although not necessarily too scarily to the Springboks, who should have Handre Pollard at customary 10 and Damian de Allende, who also does not shirk collisions, immediately alongside him in midfield.

By next year, the now Harlequins-based former Sharks favourite Andre Esterhuizen, who is even sturdier and more rugged in style, could be pushing De Allende hard for the Bok No 12 spot.

The big talking point from an England angle in O'Driscoll's Lions forward unit, meanwhile, is his preference for Maro Itoje - who played at No 4 lock in the World Cup final - as the blindside flank (the No 6 jersey which in South African terms would be deemed the seven).

Also tipped as possible tour captain, the athletic and powerful Itoje, 25, has made six starts for England in that capacity, but the vast majority of his 41 Test caps have been in the second row, including all of his 24 most recent.

O'Driscoll's reasoning is that Itoje, by going to the side of the scrum, adds to the Lions' tall timber for both lineout and general physicality purposes against the customarily earthy Bok eight.

He sees Itoje as the right player to oppose World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit in the blindside capacity: Du Toit is also, of course, a converted lock although seemingly now a permanent, highly contented loose forward.

In line with the thinking of several other "ideal Lions XV" amateur selectors, O'Driscoll opts for the hulking figure of Billy Vunipola at No 8 … again evidently a bid to fight fire with fire against the Boks' own gnarly Duane Vermeulen who has enjoyed supremacy over Vunipola in several key tussles in recent years.

Some eyebrows would have been raised by his selection of Welsh veteran Alun Wyn Jones in the second row; he will be 35 by the time of the tour but O'Driscoll describes him as a "warrior" and "fitness animal".

Whoever gets to pack down at tighthead for the Boks for the first Test (Frans Malherbe or Vincent Koch, most likely) would be grappling a relatively unknown factor on the Lions' loose-head side if the Irish legend gets his way: Scotland's Rory Sutherland.

Nearly 28, Sutherland has been a late arrival on the Test scene and only sports seven caps - none yet against South Africa, either - but been credited with a Scottish scrummage revival in early 2020.

O'Driscoll's fullback would be the other Scot in his line-up, in the shape of slippery Stuart Hogg (he certainly shares Willie le Roux's attacking relish) who has been on two earlier Lions tours but not yet seen Test action in them.

Brian O'Driscoll's proposed British and Irish Lions XV:

15 Stuart Hogg (Sco), 14 Anthony Watson (Eng), 13 Jonathan Davies (Wal), 12 Manu Tuilagi (Eng), 11 Jonny May (Eng), 10 Owen Farrell (Eng), 9 Tomos Williams (Wal), 8 Billy Vunipola (Eng), 7 Sam Underhill (Eng), 6 Maro Itoje (Eng), 5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wal), 4 James Ryan (Ire), 3 Tadhg Furlong (Ire), 2 Jamie George (Eng), 1 Rory Sutherland (Sco).

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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