With the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour in the books and delivering in almost all ways imaginable, hopefully you can forgive us for already casting our eye forward to the 2021 tour of South Africa.
Plenty of youngsters staked a claim in New Zealand to tour again, such as Maro Itoje, Tadhg Furlong and Anthony Watson, but we look at some of the budding stars of the Home Nations that could join them against the Springboks, who are the last team to win a series against the Lions.
Here are some of the players who could be pushing hard for a Lions jersey in four years’ time.
Garry Ringrose, Leinster and Ireland
One of the unluckiest players to miss out on selection this year, Ringrose could be the premiere outside centre in the Home Nations by 2021. His decision-making, handling and footwork are all exceptional already and with four more years to fine-tune his defence and fill out a little more, he will be among the favourites to tour South Africa.
Joe Cokanasiga, London Irish
Cokanasiga narrowly missed out on making his England debut this summer, picking up a minor injury just prior to the tour of Argentina, but with his size and skill set, he is the prototype for modern wings. The current crop of Lions lacked some size on the wing and with the growing importance of the kick-pass, Cokanasiga is a player who can make a telling impact at club and country levels over the next four years, before throwing his name in the Lions mix.
Chris Farrell, Munster
The Lions may not have the services of Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies in South Africa, given both players will be well into their 30’s, making finding a powerful, direct-running centre a priority. The likes of Jonathan Joseph, Elliot Daly and Ringrose all offer prodigious attacking threats, but none of the trio provide the north-to-south ability to power over the gain-line that Farrell does.
After an impressive spell in Grenoble, an Ireland cap surely beckons for Farrell following his move to Munster.
Luke Cowan-Dickie, Exeter Chiefs and England
Rory Best will be out of the equation in 2021, opening the door for at least one new hooker in South Africa. Cowan-Dickie has gone a long way to improving his lineout throwing over the last 12 months and is a more than comfortable ball-handler, who can cause havoc in the wider channels.
Even if England continue with Dylan Hartley and Jamie George as their preferred hookers heading into the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Cowan-Dickie should get at least two seasons after, in direct competition with George, to impress.
Owen Watkin, Ospreys
A serious knee injury this time last year unfortunately wiped out Watkin’s 2016/17 season, but he is quite the talent and was on the fast-track to a senior Wales cap last season. He has the kind of power in his game that made Jamie Roberts a star, whilst there is a softness to his hands and an offloading touch that is much more similar to Scott Williams’ game.
If he begins to realise his potential over the coming years and can continue to combine the direct and subtle skills he has, Lions selection certainly isn’t out of the equation.
Nick Isiekwe, Saracens and England
A try in his first appearance for England against the Barbarians and then two caps on the summer tour of Argentina, Isiekwe is the latest multi-faceted and talented lock to come out of the Saracens academy. He still has another year of U20 eligibility if he wants to use it – or England don’t call him up to the seniors again – but it’s at the Premiership level where Isiekwe should be looking to make an impact this season.
As ball-handlers go, the big second row is as gifted a player to come through among the tight five ranks as there has been in the last five or six years.
Jonny Gray and Huw Jones, Glasgow Warriors and Scotland
The lack of Scottish representation was one of the major talking points of this year’s tour and this pair could help ensure that doesn’t happen again in 2021.
Gray was unlucky to miss out this year and with Alun Wyn Jones likely to have hung up his boots by 2021, the Scotsman will be one of the favourites to fill the vacancy. As for Huw Jones, injury robbed him of a shot this year, but his powerful running style, though not a thumper, could see him push hard for inclusion in the midfield.
Tom Curry, Sale Sharks and England, and Ben Curry, Sale Sharks
These twins could be the next big thing in English rugby and Eddie Jones recognises that, making Tom the youngest England forward capped since 1912 this summer. Ben is the slightly more predatory player over the ball, whilst Tom is the more abrasive carrier and tackler, making the duo a very nice balanced pair to deploy on the flanks.
First things first, the two youngsters need to back up remarkable debut seasons with strong showings in 2018/19. The sophomore slump has hindered many a player over the year.
Jacob Stockdale, Ulster and Ireland
Like Cokanasiga, Stockdale would give the Lions the size that they - George North aside - lack on the wing. Coming through the Ulster and Ireland system, Stockdale is very adept in the air and is another prototypical back three player for the modern era.
Ryan Elias, Scarlets and Wales
It’s not just Ken Owens’ Lions place that could come under threat from Elias, but also his international and regional spots. The senior hooker had a tremendous 2016/17 season but the understudy is impatiently snapping at his heels.
If Elias can dislodge Owens at Parc y Scarlets or find a starting berth at one of the other regions, don’t rule him out from making a Lions push in 2021.
Sam Underhill, Bath and England, and Zach Mercer, Bath
As with the Curry twins, this pair’s prospects could hinge on how the post-RWC England coach, whomever that may be, sees his favoured back row. With Chris Robshaw and James Haskell of the age that the RWC may be their last hurrah, Underhill, Mercer, B Curry and T Curry will all be front and centre to compete for starting spots in the England back row alongside Billy Vunipola.
Well-rounded and balanced operators like Taulupe Faletau, Sam Waburton and Peter O’Mahony could all still be prominent in 2021, maybe opening a door for the exciting attacking repertoire of Mercer.
Magnus Bradbury, Edinburgh and Scotland
Another Scot who can help redress the balance of under-representation, Bradbury would bring a physical presence to the back row. He will have to compete with the likes of Faletau, Vunipola and Moriarty for a spot, but he has the potential to be talked about in the same breath as that calibre of player.
Two other names in Edinburgh to keep an eye on are Callum Hunter-Hill and Darcy Graham. The 2021 tour might come a year or two too soon for them, but they are talented players that could help accelerate Richard Cockerill’s rebuild in the Scottish capital.