The 2017 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand will be remembered for a whole host of reasons, not just the extraordinary result of a drawn series.
Warren Gatland’s Lions went down to New Zealand and pulled off a result very few thought possible, as the disparate group of Home Nations players inflicted the first home loss on the All Blacks since 2009, as well as ending the hosts’ 38-match – and 23-year - win-streak at Eden Park.
A number of Lions stepped up and impressed over the last six weeks, but we take a look at the younger, first-time tourists and grade how they went facing the greatest challenge in the game - touring New Zealand.
Maro Itoje – 9/10
The young lock continues to take every challenge in his blossoming career in his sizeable stride and he looked completely at home amidst Lions legend Alun Wyn Jones and New Zealand’s vaunted pairing of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.
It is the ease with which Itoje asserts his dominance, right from the outset, on every level of rugby that he steps up to, that sets him apart from most other players on the scene. He should be a certainty for the 2021 tour of South Africa – barring injury – and has already singled himself out as a strong candidate for the captaincy.
Tadhg Furlong – 8/10
Leinster’s titanic tighthead was another player to step up on his debut tour and though the Lions didn’t have the advantage at the scrum that they would have liked, he anchored the unit well. His powerful carries around the fringes also helped to keep the Lions on the front foot and his leg drives in contact surprised many a would-be Kiwi tackler.
Like Itoje, it’s hard to foresee a scenario – barring injury – whereby Furlong doesn’t again tour in 2021 and, likely, plays another prominent role in the Test team.
Anthony Watson – 7/10
Watson acquitted himself very well on his first tour and looked dangerous in the, admittedly few, moments he saw the ball on the front foot. His counter-attacking was also noteworthy, as was his reliability under the high ball and in his defensive duties.
The Bath man provided spark out wide and if you were looking for a criticism, it could be that he didn’t involve himself enough in the game, by searching for work off his wing, when the ball wasn’t making its way out to him. He should go from strength to strength and feature again in four years’ time.
Iain Henderson – 6/10
The Ulster lock did an impressive job of working his way back into contention after a poor start to the tour. An off-colour performance against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians had the potential to derail him right from the outset, but he put in the hard yards and, primarily through his dynamic carrying, was in the Test 23 conversation come the second and third Tests.
Henderson was unlucky to be surrounded by two men as in-form as Itoje and Courtney Lawes, not to mention a player as experienced as Jones, but 2021 could be his time to shine. He is far from a certainty for selection, given the riches of locks likely to be available to the Lions in four years’ time, but this tour will have done his stock no harm at all.
Elliot Daly – 6/10
It was a relatively quiet tour for the Lions wings, with defensive errors arguably hurting individuals’ stock more so than attacking ambition and/or execution boosted it. Daly delivered well, especially with his ability to add another kicking option to the back three, but couldn’t quite make the attacking impact that Watson did.
His versatility to play across the back three and at outside centre make him a very valuable player to have on a Lions tour, but equally, that versatility may work against him over the next few years, especially if England continue to use him on the wing and Wasps prefer him in the midfield. That said, nailing the long-distance kick at Eden Park in the pivotal third Test won’t have hurt his chances at all.
Jack Nowell – 5/10
Nowell suffered from a very tough start to the tour, where he was roasted by Rieko Ioane in the game with the Blues, and like Henderson, had to work hard to push himself back into contention for the Test side. He couldn’t work his way in, but he did turn in one of the performances of the tour when he bagged a brace against the Chiefs.
The Exeter Chief is another player whose best position is still in question and just like Daly, covers the back three and outside centre. As with the Wasps man, nailing a position for club and country will be key to Nowell’s chances of heading to South Africa in four years’ time and pushing a claim for a spot in the Test 23.
Robbie Henshaw – 5/10
It was a tough tour for Henshaw, who never really got to show his best with the midweek side, after quickly falling behind Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies in Gatland’s pecking order. He contributed more than any other Lion back at the breakdown and whilst that proved valuable in the games he played, it wasn’t enough to push him into the Test team.
An injury curtailed his tour late on, but he is a player that has gone from strength to strength for Ireland and should be in the mix at inside centre to tour South Africa. Inside centre is a position where the Home Nations don’t boast the largest strength in depth, so Henshaw could be in line to make a bigger impact in 2021, perhaps inside provincial and international teammate Garry Ringrose.
Ross Moriarty – N/A
An impressive debut set some high expectations for Moriarty on tour, but unfortunately injury ended his hopes of making multiple appearances and it wasn’t enough to give him a valid grade. His abrasive nature could be very welcome in South Africa in 2021.