What the Lions midweek XV will look like in South Africa

Robert Jones remembers fellow Lions scrum-half Gary Armstrong proudly brandishing a T-shirt with ‘Donal’s Donuts’ emblazoned across the front in 1989 and telling him: “You’ll never get one of these, Jonesy.”

Jones, of course, was the Test No. 9 on that trip to Australia 32 years ago.

Armstrong had been a mainstay of the midweek team led by Donald Lenihan. They went unbeaten on the tour and their victory over Australia Capital Territories, a week before the second Test, was regarded as one of the key moments of the tour. They embodied the spirit of the trip.

How the dirt-trackers do is often a barometer of any Lions campaign.

Who’ll feature in the non-Test team in South Africa this summer?

It’s hard to say, yes — so much can change during the course of a couple of months.

But with most people agreeing on the rough shape of the Saturday XV already, an outline of the midweek team can be detected.

It’s more than a bit useful…

15. Josh Adams

Out of his natural habitat? Yes, but the Wales wing played full-back for Worcester Warriors in the Gallagher Premiership and was an unqualified success with his ability to hit the line at pace, rule the skies and defend resolutely.

There’s a fair chance the scorer of 65 tries in 112 games of senior rugby could make the Test side, in which case any one of Anthony Watson, Liam Williams and Stuart Hogg could fit in here.

Elliot Daly’s another option if the Lions take a utility back.

Josh Adams of Wales celebrates scoring try with Jonathan Davies

14. Louis Rees-Zammit

What an impact the Wales youngster made in his first season in Test rugby.

LRZ can run like the wind and has the knack of converting quarter-chances into tries. If he can tighten his defence, he could challenge for the Saturday team, but wherever he plays he’ll be an asset.

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13. Chris Harris

Sadly, it wasn’t to be for George North, who this week saw his Lions dream ended by injury.

The Scottish influence in selection may see Harris propelled into the squad. He’s a hard-hitter in defences and keeps opponents honest with his strong running. Garry Ringrose and Henry Slade are others who could come into contention.

Manu Tuilagi is now fancied to start in the Tests at 13, fitness permitting.

12. Jonathan Davies

If his form this term hasn’t been close to his 2017 Lions vintage, he is a man Gatland learned to trust in the Wales set-up and he never let his old boss down. Just maybe, he has enough credit in the bank to make the tour. He’d add vast experience and defensive nous to the midweek side. If he could find his true self, he may push for the Test XV.

11. Duhan van der Merwe

Gregor Townsend’s presence on the Lions coaching panel may yet see his giant Scotland wing featuring in the squad, perhaps ahead of Jonny May.

Van der Merwe takes some stopping.

He scored more tries (5) and broke more tackles (32) than anyone else in the Six Nations, while his 474 metres with ball in hand was bettered by only Brice Dulin.

10. Dan Biggar

Dan Biggar makes a break for Northampton Saints against London Irish

It could be Owen Farrell here, perhaps as captain of the midweek team. Warren Gatland may like what he brings in terms of leadership, but Biggar’s cut from the same cloth and form in the pre-Test games is likely to determine who starts against South Africa.

It’s just a hunch that Gatland will work Farrell into his Test team somewhere, though.

Whichever side has Biggar at 10 will have a key player.

His display for Wales against France in the Six Nations was outstanding and he’s held his form in club rugby.

9. Gareth Davies

Conor Murray is a likely Test starter, with maybe Ben Youngs on the bench.

To make the midweek side, Davies first has to be in the tour party — something that isn’t a given, with Tomos Williams and potentially Ali Price also in the frame.

But let’s assume Davies’ experience swings it.

He is a stout defender and can turn games with his creativity and ability to snaffle interception tries.

1. Rory Sutherland

The Scot can scrummage, and scrummage strongly, which is always a good starting point for a prop. Wyn Jones and Mako Vunipola for Test duty? Probably.

It will leave Sutherland to showcase his wares in midweek.

2. Luke Cowan-Dickie

He has become an England starter and deservedly so with his energy around the field. However, Gatland is a Jamie George fan and the expectation is the Saracen will be in the Test squad, sharing duties with Ken Owens.

LCD will bring tenacity to the front row. He is good over the ball, likes to carry and doesn’t shirk in defence.

3. Tomas Francis

Very quietly, the Wales international has been making a case for a tour spot. He had a fine Six Nations and has reclaimed his starting place with Exeter Chiefs. Last week against Bristol, he had a strong game, understated in so many ways: the Chiefs scrum didn’t budge an inch with him on the field and he hit countless rucks.

There’s a decent chance he might make the tour, though Andrew Porter and Zander Fagerson will provide good competition.

4. Iain Henderson

Here’s another one who had a strong Six Nations.

He’s a multi-skilled player who can operate equally effectively at No. 6 and in the second row. Henderson stands out with his carrying, breakdown work and his tackling, while at 6ft 6in he’s not often bettered at line-outs.

5. James Ryan

A potential midweek captain — at 24, he’s already skippered Ireland.

The 6ft 8in Dubliner is set to be in the mix for the games with South Africa but may find himself squeezed from the starting line-up by Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones.

Courtney Lawes could be another option for the second string.

6. Josh Navidi

The selfless Wales back rower will be unlucky if he fails to make the trip.

Let’s assume that he does.

Warren Gatland is a huge admirer: when asked to comment on the Wales back rowers in 2018, the first player he name-checked was Navidi.

He likes his work ethic. He values his versatility. He enjoys his willingness to go the extra mile for the team.

7. Hamish Watson

Hamish Watson in action against Wales

The assumption is Tom Curry and Justin Tipuric will be in the Test squad, though nothing is certain on that front, with the competition blast-furnace hot at openside.

There’s also Sam Underhill to potentially consider.

For sure, Watson wouldn’t weaken a Lions Test XV. Scotland’s Pinball Wizard has the ability to bounce off tacklers and make serious ground with ball in hand; he doesn’t miss much in defence — he made 55 tackles in the Six Nations and nailed every one — and is a menace at the breakdown.

But someone has to feature for the midweek side and for the moment we’ll pick him.

8. CJ Stander

He’s been relentlessly consistent for Ireland over the years, a player who seems to show up strongly in every game he plays.

Stander poses a breakdown threat and has the carrying game to cross the gain-line.

A Test Lion off the bench in 2017, he’s a respected figure and Gatland knows what he can bring.

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