Warren Gatland will end months of debate and speculation when he names his 36-player squad for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa on Thursday.

Having been a part of the last Lions tour to South Africa in 2009 and faced the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup 2019 semi-final as Wales boss, Gatland knows what is needed to take on the world champions.

But, will he have some tricks up his sleeve when he confirms his selection this week? 

John Bentley, Keith Earls and Martin Johnson are players synonymous with the term ‘Lions bolter’, out-of-the-box picks to tour with the famous team.

We look at five players who could well end up as Gatland’s surprise picks this time around. 

Danny Care

Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care has not featured for England since November, 2018, but has played a pivotal role in his club side’s resurgence this year.

The veteran number nine has scored seven Premiership tries in 2021, as Quins have won eight and drawn one of their 12 league matches to catapult themselves into the top four.

Care has been in contention for each of the previous three Lions tours without receiving a call-up and the 34-year-old would be a popular inclusion on the trip to South Africa.

If picked he would bring an eye for a break, and the try line. With no one player having made an indisputable claim to the number nine jersey — and Ben Youngs ruled out due to family reasons — Care is arguably the in-form available scrum-half.

Chris Harris

George North’s unfortunate injury has potentially opened up a space in Gatland’s midfield and no player would be more deserving of filling it than Gloucester and Scotland centre Chris Harris.

If the Lions are to beat the world champions on their own turf then they will need a watertight defence, and picking the two men who led Scotland’s rearguard effort during the Six Nations 2021 should not be discounted.

Harris marshalled the Scotland defence on the pitch in February and March as the team shipped just 91 points in their five matches.

And, with defence coach Steve Tandy already on the tour could Harris join him?

Hugo Keenan

Gatland is not short of options in the back-three, but if Leinster’s European Champions Cup quarter-final at Exeter Chiefs last month represented a Lions audition, then Hugo Keenan grasped it with both hands.

Playing opposite Stuart Hogg, who is a shoo-in for Thursday’s squad announcement, Keenan shone in Leinster’s number 15 jersey, providing two try assists as the Irishmen recovered from a 14-0 deficit to win 34-22 at Sandy Park.

A former Ireland sevens international, Keenan broke into the Leinster side on a regular basis during the 2019-20 season and made his test debut last October.

The 24-year-old started each of Ireland’s five Six Nations 2021 matches, but faces competition not only from Hogg, but Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and potentially a predecessor in the Irish 15 jersey, Simon Zebo.

Ronan Kelleher

Another young Leinster player who emerged during the 2019-20 campaign and has since transported that form onto the international stage.

Ronan Kelleher made his Ireland debut as a replacement during the Six Nations 2020, and has been used largely as a back-up to Rob Herring since.

However, the impact he has made from the bench — and his form for Leinster — has put him in contention to board the flight to South Africa alongside Ken Owens and Jamie George.

“It would be incredible, but there's a lot of rugby to be played between now and the Lions tour,” Kelleher said last week.

Sam Simmonds

To the chagrin of many an England fan and commentator, Sam Simmonds has not been involved in a matchday test squad since the tour of South Africa three years ago.

Calls for the number eight’s reintegration into the England squad grew last season as Simmonds helped Exeter Chiefs to an English Premiership and European Champions Cup double.

But, despite a return of 14 tries in 16 Premiership matches this term, Eddie Jones has so far resisted the urge to recall Exeter’s talisman.

Gatland has an embarrassment of riches to select from in the back-row, but may well feel he can harness Simmonds’ talents in what is sure to be a ferocious series against the Springboks.

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