Miles Harrison: Living Room with the British and Irish Lions in 2021 part 4 | Rugby Union News


Miles Harrison pens his fourth column for the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa, as he recovers from surgery for colon cancer

In each and every British and Irish Lions tour that has been broadcasted live on Sky Sports since 1997, Miles Harrison has been lead commentator. 

His voice is synonymous with the Lions, their successes and failures. This year, Miles had to step aside from the tour to South Africa, however, as our dear colleague is recovering following surgery for colon cancer.

So rather than taking in the Lions tour of 2021 from the commentary position, Miles will be taking it in from his living room, and in the spirit of the epic 1997 documentary Living with Lions, our own broadcasting great is contributing a column: Living Room with the Lions. Part 4 is below…

So, now we know

After our ever-changing beer mat selections over the past few months, the Lions management have revealed the only team that matters, and by all accounts they were poles apart on some choices before reaching the necessary compromises.

Indeed, this has been the most open selection debate before any Lions series in the professional era. That is partly because of the unique circumstances involved in the build-up to the first Test on this tour but, more importantly, because of a genuine evenness in the quality running through the squad.

You could honestly put out a XV this weekend from the non-selected players and it would rather convincingly look like the first-choice side.

There is so much to say about the team but I’m going to concentrate on the back three again. Like everybody, it seems, I have been going round and round in circles on this.

Sky Sports pundit Will Greenwood was shocked at the backline picked by Warren Gatland for the first Test

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Sky Sports pundit Will Greenwood was shocked at the backline picked by Warren Gatland for the first Test

Sky Sports pundit Will Greenwood was shocked at the backline picked by Warren Gatland for the first Test

A Hogg/Watson/Williams trio was always going to provide bundles of experience and world-class abilities, but my problem kept coming back to: how could you leave out all of the deadly musketeers Adams, Rees-Zammit and Van der Merwe? Three men that, when given the chance, will score. In games of fine margins these players are so often the ones who make the difference.

I’ll be honest, the choice of Van der Merwe was not one I was making post France vs Scotland or, indeed, after the Lions against Japan, as there were clear defensive question marks over the Scottish flyer on those days.

But I recall saying to a friend during the Six Nations that when it comes to the issue of Cheslin Kolbe, it quite frankly might not matter who the Lions choose to deal with him as the little genius embarrasses even the most sure-footed defender.

Duhan van der Merwe's defensive credentials may be suspect, but he will trouble Cheslin Kolbe going forward

Duhan van der Merwe’s defensive credentials may be suspect, but he will trouble Cheslin Kolbe going forward

So perhaps the best policy would be to simply go for somebody to give Kolbe worries and troubles of his own. Even the pocket-rocket power of Cheslin may do well to handle a super-sized Van der Merwe at full tilt. On this basis alone I get the pick, and it is a bold one.

In fact, bold is a theme running through the selection as a whole and I like that too. As I said last week in this column, as the Lions are not going to win an arm-wrestle with the Boks, they must employ a game that stretches South Africa to the limit. This looks like a team that is going to try and do that, but inevitably the world champions will have other ideas.

The unluckiest

There are many wonderful rugby players missing out this weekend for both sides but, in view of what I have just said, Josh Adams has to be top of my ‘unluckiest’ list.

Okay, he wasn’t quite at his best last time out but he has been setting such high standards. Those with memories long enough to recall 1997 will cite another Welshman, Allan Bateman, as perhaps the unluckiest Lion to be left out of the early skirmishes in that series.

Lions wing Josh Adams (left) is hugely unlucky to miss out on a squad place for the first Test

Lions wing Josh Adams (left) is hugely unlucky to miss out on a squad place for the first Test

Mind you, Scott Gibbs and Jerry Guscott did do a pretty good job! And the point here is that, like Bateman, Adams has to be ready as the series goes on. In fact, he may well still write the most important line of them all.

So too Taulupe Faletau, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola et al. The Lions management clearly have places to go to freshen things up in what will be a frighteningly physical series. That is the dream scenario when the Lions are steering the ship although, once again, South Africa will have other ideas.

British and Irish Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones says the squad are in South Africa to win the Test series

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British and Irish Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones says the squad are in South Africa to win the Test series

British and Irish Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones says the squad are in South Africa to win the Test series

Bench power

As for more relevant and direct options this weekend, despite being constantly told that being on the bench is just as important as starting the game, players still, it seems, crave the jerseys numbered 1-15. It is understandable human instinct if you like.

However, a look at the benches this weekend and you can see how vital they are going to be. From a Lions perspective, the introduction of Tadhg Beirne and Hamish Watson could well be absolutely critical.

Tadhg Beirne's introduction off the bench is likely to be critical for the Lions

Tadhg Beirne’s introduction off the bench is likely to be critical for the Lions

For South Africa, it is Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe who arguably could make the most decisive impact.

In choosing those four names, it perhaps reveals how both sides will be wanting the game to be going when they send on their key reinforcements. The tactical use of the benches on Saturday will be fascinating to observe.

Curry spice

Finally, who is the most important name on the Lions team-sheet? Again, we are spoilt for choice. But, if forced to pick, I’d go Tom Curry.

Tom Curry is Miles' pick for the most important member of the Lions XV

Tom Curry is Miles’ pick for the most important member of the Lions XV

Curry says it's a dream to be involved in the Lions tour, but he's aware of the scale of the challenge that awaits

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Curry says it’s a dream to be involved in the Lions tour, but he’s aware of the scale of the challenge that awaits

Curry says it’s a dream to be involved in the Lions tour, but he’s aware of the scale of the challenge that awaits

Hamish Watson could not have done any more this year to push for that Lions No 7 starting shirt. Curry will know that and he will also be well aware that his performance over the ball will be pivotal to how the Lions start the series.

Also, staring him in the face this weekend, is not only the Springbok back-row but his club colleague Faf de Klerk, the man who really does make this South African side tick.

South Africa's Faf de Klerk says he will put his friendship with the Lions' Tom Curry to one side when the Sale Sharks pair face each other

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South Africa’s Faf de Klerk says he will put his friendship with the Lions’ Tom Curry to one side when the Sale Sharks pair face each other

South Africa’s Faf de Klerk says he will put his friendship with the Lions’ Tom Curry to one side when the Sale Sharks pair face each other

If Curry gets to de Klerk then the Lions chances of victory rocket. The added spice to all of this is the Sale Sharks connection. They will be watching this one closely in the living-rooms of the north-west of England, as we all will.