Who should be in the Lions starting XV for the first Test against SA?

After a THRILLING Six Nations, who has nailed down a spot in the Lions starting XV for the first Test against South Africa, and who might be the surprise pick? Sportsmail’s experts have their say…

  • The British and Irish Lions tour world champions South Africa this summer
  • Head coach Warren Gatland will be considering his squad and his starting XV
  • There is the matter of captain to resolve too and the make-up of the backline
  • Owen Farrell could start at 10, or will Finn Russell or Johnny Sexton get the nod? 
  • Now, Sportsmail’s rugby reporters give their Lions starting XV’s for this summer

It’s just under three months until the Lions begin their nine-match series, starting with a home game against Japan at Murrayfield before heading out to South Africa for eight matches, as confirmed by Sportsmail last week. 

With the conclusion of the Six Nations last week, head coach Warren Gatland – the man in charge for the third consecutive tour – will be considering all his options and is set to name a 36-strong squad.  

Gatland will have six warm-up games before the first Test in Johannesburg on July 24, when he will pick a highly-anticipated starting XV. Now, Sportsmail’s rugby reporters give their verdict on who they’d pick in the 15 come the Test opener at FNB Stadium. 

The Lions face South Africa in the first Test on July 24 – but who will be in that starting XV? 

Lions head coach Warren Gatland has plenty of big decisions to make ahead of this summer 


Good luck to Warren Gatland – this is not an easy process. It’s difficult enough narrowing down all the quality options to settle on a Lions squad of 36, let alone making the close calls needed to pick a Test XV. Some very fine players won’t get close.

Projected selections will change countless times between now and the start of the series against the Springboks in July, so this attempt is based on the latest available evidence and a few hunches about form trends and tactical necessities. 

There is an emphasis on experience and familiar combinations, which in some cases means that players make the cut on reputation.

Gatland has been watching Six Nations games ahead of picking his Lions squad on May 6


15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

14 Anthony Watson (England)

13 Robbie Henshaw (Ireland) 

12 Manu Tuilagi (England)

11 George North (Wales)

10 Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)

9 Conor Murray (Ireland)

1 Wyn Jones (Wales) 

2 Ken Owens (Wales) 

3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland) 

4 Maro Itoje (England)

5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales, C) 

6 Tom Curry (England)

7 Hamish Watson (Scotland) 

8 Taulupe Faletau (Wales)

There is at least some semblance of a hierarchy in certain areas of the pack, especially the front row, where Wales hooker Ken Owens and Irish tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong are the leading contenders in their respective positions.

But they will be pushed all the way by an English trio; Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Kyle Sinckler – who, at his best, would fill the red No 3 shirt with distinction.

Loosehead presents an altogether more complex equation, as Mako Vunipola has the pedigree but has endured set-piece struggles of late, and South Africa is no place to take a creaking scrum. 

Rory Sutherland of Scotland has emerged strongly in the last year and should be in the mix, but Wyn Jones was a stand-out figure in Wales’ Six Nations title success, so he edges it at this stage.

This observer sees no need to look beyond the pre-eminent locks from the last tour in 2017; Maro Itoje and Alun-Wyn Jones, with the latter as captain.

Itoje gave away too many penalties in Cardiff but he is a magnificent, dominant, athletic presence at the heart of any pack. If he is fit, he must start, while the Welshman who should partner him again remains as influential as ever and is absolutely the right leader.

Back row is the most competitive area of the squad, let alone team, but two men should be shoo-ins; Taulupe Faletau at No 8 and Tom Curry, on one flank or other.

Hamish Watson has forced his way to the front of the open-side pecking order and could complete a dynamic unit, although Justin Tipuric, Sam Underhill and Josh Navidi are all worthy of close consideration.

Scotland flanker Hamish Watson has forced his way to the front of the open-side pecking order

The back line is more open to polarised debate, due to the lack of front-runners whose inclusion is an utter formality. Even Owen Farrell is not in that category, after the Six Nations he and England endured, which led to a fifth-place finish.

Physicality is always a precious commodity in any encounters with the Boks, as the Lions found out so brutally back in 2009, on their last South African tour. So, there is a case for loading the starting line-up with imposing, powerful backs, while keeping some fliers in reserve.

On that basis, Stuart Hogg and Anthony Watson can provide back-three pace and nimble footwork, alongside the clout of George North – a revitalised figure for the Ospreys and Wales, Robbie Henshaw and Manu Tuilagi. 

George North was a star for the Lions in Australia in 2013 but was less prominent in 2017

If the England centre is fit, few in these islands pose such a gainline-busting threat. If he is unavailable, or if more subtle tactics are in order, Jonathan Davies could wear No 12 again, or Farrell could start there in a two-playmaker format.

The half-back picture is an almighty mess at this stage, unfortunately, so the temptation is to default to the tried and trusted. 

That would involve the Irish axis of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, but with the option of adding artistry from the bench, by summoning Finn Russell or George Ford as No 10s-in-waiting. 

As for the scrum-halves, Gatland should consider Danny Care, Harry Randall, Rhys Webb and John Cooney.

Just to emphasise the depth of resources at the Kiwi head coach’s disposal, there are many others with the talent to force their way into his Test plans, such as Louis Rees-Zammit, Liam Williams, Josh Adams, Garry Ringrose, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne and Sam Simmonds. 

The temptation at 9 and 10 is to go with Ireland duo Conor Murray (left) and Johnny Sexton



15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

14 Anthony Watson (England)

13 Jonathan Davies (Wales)

12 Owen Farrell (England)

11 Liam Williams (Wales)

10 Finn Russell (Scotland)

9 Danny Care (England) 

1 Joe Marler (England) 

2 Ken Owens (Wales)

3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)

4 Maro Itoje (England

5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales, C)

6 Tom Curry (England)

7 Justin Tipuric (Wales) 

8 Taulupe Faletau (Wales)

For the sake of consistency, I’ve made just one change to the XV I picked after the last full weekend of Six Nations fixtures.

Given that no scum-half managed to lock down the No 9 spot during two months of international rugby, Danny Care has taken on the role following his outstanding form for Harlequins.

I’m sticking to my guns with Finn Russell at No 10. Admittedly, there are safer pairs of hands out there in Dan Biggar and Johnny Sexton. 

However, as he has shown for Racing 92, Russell can cast all manner of spells with the right players around him. He could light up the series.

Questions remain about Russell’s all-round game, so Owen Farrell steps in at No 12 to help relieve the distribution, goal kicking and defensive pressure. 

Farrell’s form has been poor, but Gatland can help turn around his performances. Jonathan Davies can also provide stability and experience in the midfield.

Liam Williams is one of the first names on the teamsheet. He is the strongest full-back but I have moved him to the wing, alongside Anthony Watson, to accommodate Stuart Hogg. 

The pack is easier to pick.

Tom Curry, Toby Faletau and Maro Itoje are all nailed-on starters. World class, dynamic operators who can handle the Springbok physicality.

South Africa’s scrum will be one of their biggest weapons. Despite not playing international rugby, Joe Marler is the strongest scrummager, so he joins Ken Owens and Tadhg Furlong in an experienced front-row.

And there is room for a couple more of Gatland’s trusted Welshmen. Alun-Wyn Jones should start as captain… or not play at all… while Justin Tipuric edges out Tadhg Beirne and Hamish Watson in the back-row.

Danny Care is Nik Simon’s pick at scrum-half due to his outstanding form for Harlequins 

Liam Williams, who toured New Zealand in 2017, is one of the first names on the teamsheet



15 Liam Williams (Wales) 

14 Anthony Watson (England) 

13 Jonathan Davies (Wales) 

12 Manu Tuilagi (England) 

11 George North (Wales) 

10 Owen Farrell (England) 

9 Conor Murray (Ireland) 

1 Maku Vunipola (England) 

2 Ken Owens (Wales) 

3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland) 

4 Maro Itoje (England) 

5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales, C)

6 Tom Curry (England) 

7 Sam Underhill (England) 

8 Taulupe Faletau (Wales) 

To my mind the forwards are starting to pick themselves, with the backs an utter nightmare.

I’ve picked this as to what I think the Lions XV might grow into, as opposed to the most in-form one now – hence Sam Underhill re-igniting his ‘Kamikaze Kids’ duo with Tom Curry despite not playing in the Six Nations.

Numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8 are easy to reel off. Ken Owens is the best hooker right now, Tadhg Furlong a bull of a tighthead, Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones look the perfect lock pair, and no one is close to Taulupe Faletau at No 8.

I would have Jamie George, Wyn Jones, Kyle Sinckler, Tadhg Beirne and Justin Tipuric as my bench forwards (good Lord, by the way…) which again were easy to select. All could realistically start.

But in the backs almost nothing is straightforward. The simplest picks are Liam Williams at full-back – for high-ball prowess, amazing footwork and fight – and Anthony Watson on one wing.

Otherwise, frankly who knows? It feels that 9-10-12-13 is in danger of becoming enormously flat and lacking in dynamism – but maybe against big Springboks, that is OK?

I would be shocked if Owen Farrell did not revive himself to make the team – but he is a brow-furrower in himself. 10 or 12?

If he’s 12 then you need size outside – pray for the fitness of Manu Tuilagi – or Johnny Sexton to be the one from the end of the Six Nations not the start, as there is no way Finn Russell and Farrell will team up, as much as that might look amazing on paper. 

Russell for the bench with Stuart Hogg.

Faletau is favourite for the No 8 jersey in a pack which is easier to pick than the backs

Scotland fly-half does not make Will Kelleher’s starting XV, with Owen Farrell preferred at 10 

Pick Robbie Henshaw and George North, and who is kicking off their left foot? So then Jonathan Davies is back in the mix. And if he plays and Tuilagi does not, where is your gain-line biffer?

Does that come out wide with Duhan van der Merwe? Or does North go back there? And someone is going to have to tackle Cheslin Kolbe (or try to). We have not even got to scrum-half either, which just thinking about makes the hair thin.

In the end, due to this being a Covid-era tour, I’ve gone for tried, tested, and big, with bench chasers if size is not everything.


15 Stuart Hogg (81%), 14 Anthony Watson (40%), 13 Jonathan Davies (35%), 12 Robbie Henshaw (38%), 11 Louis Rees-Zammit (56%), 10 Finn Russell (69%), 9 Conor Murray (31%), 1 Maku Vunipola (29%) 2 Jamie George (39%) 3 Tadgh Furlong (47%) 4 Maro Itoje (77%) 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c) (50%) 6 Tom Curry (50%) 7 Hamish Watson (42%) 8 Taulupe Faletau (46%)

More than 13,000 rugby fans made their selections via the Official Lions App, powered by Vodafone. Disagree with your fellow fans? Choose your own and get closer to the action than ever before by creating your own Vodafone Digital Lion

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