The unmitigated success of the Lions tour, from both a rugby and economic perspective, dispelled any suggestion that the relevance of the Lions is in demise. The Lions’ emphatic dismantlement of the Wallabies in the third test, securing their first series victory in 16 years, further underscored the success of the tour and makes the next tour in New Zealand an already tantalising prospect. Make no mistake about it, Northern Hemisphere rugby, sans France, is largely in rude health at the moment. Not only did the Lions’ triumph with power and style, England and Wales out-matched their Southern counterparts in the Junior World Championship, while the former’s tour of Argentina was built on a core of impressive youngsters. Ireland also has a number of superb youngsters coming through while the prospects in Scotland remain less of a certainty to make an impact but nevertheless could develop. The RR identifies four players, one from each of the home nations, that could star for the Lions in New Zealand in 2017.
Billy Vunipola, Number 8, England
Billy Vunipola is an incredibly gifted rugby player who marries exceptional attacking ability with ferocious tackling – at 6’2 and 130kgs Vunipola is nothing else than a wrecking ball. As his brother has displayed time and time again over the last couple of seasons, the Vunipola brothers are ridiculously dynamic; combining work-rate with athleticism which leads to high impact performances. Indeed, the Vunipola brothers are a gift to English rugby, providing some refreshing Polynesian flair to the stereotypically methodical and rigid English forward pack. Billy has long been touted as a future international star and he finally got a taste in the recent English tour of Argentina, after injury curtailed his opportunity to make a splash in the Six Nations. Vunipola notched an almost unbelievable six minute hat-trick against the admittedly limited CONSUR XV and then followed it up with a try on debut in the first test against Argentina. Look for Billy to strut his stuff for Saracens this year in the Heineken Cup after he made the move from Wasps at the end of last season. If he grows into the player his talent suggests then he could become a lynchpin of England’s attack in the near future.
Jordan Williams, Utility, Wales
No player left the Junior World Championship with their reputation more enhanced than Jordan Williams whose inspirational and mesmerising performances have made him undoubtedly a player to watch over the next few years. Prior to the tournament many doubted Williams’ ability to consistently deliver, despite strong performances for Llanelli in the Principality Premiership, including a virtuoso display in the Cup final. However, his match-winning display against South Africa in the semi-final coupled with his magical cameos against Scotland and Argentina show that he is a big game player and is surely ready to step up with the Scarlets in the Pro12 this coming season. Williams prefers 10, where he predominately played for Llanelli last season, but it was at 15 where he made his mark for Wales. While he can kick off both feet and has an astute kicking game, it is his explosive running that catches the eye; his quick feet and step are as lethal as anything the RR has ever seen. His diminutive stature is a concern and how he adapts to the greater physical demands of senior rugby will be interesting to see, but Jordan Williams has a knack for proving doubters wrong so nothing should come as a shock.
Iain Henderson, Blindside flanker/lock, Ireland
Henderson is one of a number of talented youngsters that are part of Ulster’s youth revolution (along with Gilroy, Olding, Marshall and Jackson, among others) which has transformed the club from the doldrums into one of the most exciting teams in Europe. Henderson has long been peddled as a future star as he has excelled at international youth level for Ireland, particularly at the 2012 Junior World Championship. He has already amassed six full caps for Ireland and put in encouraging performances off the bench in less than ideal circumstances during the 2012 Six Nations. Henderson is incredibly versatile; his size (6’6 and 118kg) allows him to play lock while his athleticism and skills make him an effective blindside flanker too. As a lock, Henderson projects to be a similar player to Sam Whitelock, a workhorse with rugby smarts; while he could potentially evolve into a Kieran Read-style player at six, taking on a ball-carrying and playmaking role. Both comparisons may seem hyperbolic but Henderson’s talents are impressive as his highlight reel testifies. Henderson is poised to make a real splash in the next couple of years; it would be a shock if he is not a fully-fledged starter and influential member of the Irish team by the 2015 World Cup, and perhaps even more.
Jamie Farndale, Wing, Scotland
Scotland has been the unquestionable ‘junior’ member of the Lions in recent tours. Indeed the heyday of the late eighties-early nineties where they provided a number of key individuals to the Lions are seemingly well behind them. Sadly it would take a brave person to suggest that this trend will change in four years time as Scotland has few ‘bona fide’ world class talents coming through their junior teams (Stuart Hogg is an unquestionable exception as well as a few others). However, one pleasant surprise over the last couple of years has been Jamie Farndale. Although not the ‘sure thing’ the other three prospects are, the Edinburgh flyer has shown impressive try-scoring acumen, notching a tournament leading six tries at the 2012 Junior World Championship and bagging a further four in all other competitions. Sadly he missed all of the 2013 U20 Six Nations and was limited in the 2013 Junior World Championships due to injury, but at only 19 years old time is definitely on his side. Additionally, he should fill out his 6ft frame nicely in the next couple of years (he is only 88kgs at the moment) and will be pushing Tim Visser for his club and international starting spot soon enough.