Lions bolters for 2017: Who will be Warren Gatland’s surprise packages?
With Warren Gatland already intimating that a number of players are already on the plane, the next few months will see if any bolters come to the fore
As the new year dawns, we move into the second half of the 2016-17 northern hemisphere season, a season that you will all know, unless you have been living under a rock for the last six months, ends in a British and Irish Lions tour.
The bulk of the touring team will be made up from the front-line resources of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but history shows us that it is possible for an uncapped bolter or out-of-favour international to make the tour on the back of a good domestic season.
Will Greenwood in 1997 is perhaps the most famous, using the tour as a springboard to honours with England that concluded in triumph at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
More recently, Christian Wade was called-up as cover for the back line in 2013 having won just a solitary cap with England, but having shown remarkable finishing ability at club level.
We look at six players currently in a similar boat and who, if they can maintain their impressive 2016-17 form to date, have a chance of booking passage to New Zealand as a bolter.
Thomas Young, Wasps and Wales
Young has flourished under his father’s guidance at Wasps and has many in his homeland clamouring for his inclusion in Wales’ upcoming Six Nations squad. Even with Wales very well-stocked on the openside, Young’s form has been so impressive that it seems he has pushed his way right to the front of the queue.
He has the ability to steal ball at the breakdown, something the Lions will value highly in New Zealand, but also offers plenty as a carrier and link man in the open spaces. If the Lions’ plan is to fight the All Blacks’ 2-4-2 fire with a little 2-4-2 fire of their own, they could do much worse than looking at Young this summer.
Jack O’Donoghue, Munster and Ireland
A powerful young back rower who has barely put a foot wrong this season, O’Donoghue currently sits behind a few players in Ireland’s back row pecking order, not to mention Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander at Munster, but his versatility is intriguing. Capable of packing down anywhere in the back row, his value on a long and attritional tour would be significant.
Working against O’Donoghue is the plethora of back row resources Gatland has at his disposal. The likes of Stander, James Haskell and Sam Warburton offer positional flexibility, albeit none, admittedly, as potent in all three jerseys as O’Donoghue. A dynamic carrier, effective clearer and workhorse in defence, don’t rule out the Irishman, especially as the inevitable injuries arise among more established players over the remainder of the season.
Jason Woodward, Bristol and England
This is a left field call, but Woodward offers not only an intriguing skill set, but also valuable intel on most of the players and teams that the Lions will come up against this summer. The Kiwi, who is English-qualified, has three years of Super Rugby experience, as well as even more of the New Zealand players, having represented the nation of his birth at U20 level and featured for Wellington since 2011.
His skill set is formidable, too. He offers control at the back with good aerial and tactical kicking skills, as well as having the vision and ambition to pull off territory-shifting counter-attacks. Throw into the mix his ability as a goal-kicker and his versatility to also play on the wing and Woodward could be a significant ace up the Lions’ sleeve.
Christian Wade, Wasps and England
Unfortunately for Wade, he has yet to earn himself a regular spot in the England team, with his only capped appearance coming against Argentina back in 2013. That is not to say he hasn’t shown his credentials at Aviva Premiership and Champions Cup levels and it is clear Warren Gatland is a fan, having drafted him in as cover during the Lions’ last tour of Australia.
A recent hat-trick against Bath shows that Wade has lost none of his prolific try-scoring ability and it is fair to say that he scores tries that no one else in the northern hemisphere is capable of. The age-old knock on Wade is his defence and ability to deal with aerial bombs and though these areas of his game have looked much-improved for Wasps, whether or not they would be exposed at Test level is still an unknown.
Matt Scott, Gloucester and Scotland
Seemingly discarded by Scotland following the rise of Huw Jones, Scott has been setting the Premiership alight for Gloucester and establishing himself as one of the most dangerous centres in the league. Playing in a back line that is built around playmakers at 10 and 12 and not afraid to give the ball some width when opportunity arises, Scott has recorded as impressive of a half-season as anyone in the British Isles.
The 13 jersey will be hotly contested with Jonathan Joseph, Garry Ringrose, Jonathan Davies and Elliot Daly all under serious consideration, as well as Scott’s countrymen, Jones and Mark Bennett. A recall to the Scotland squad for the Six Nations could boost Scott’s chances, especially if he replicates his scintillating club form in the Test arena.
Tommy Taylor, Wasps and England
There is no shortage of more established Test hookers ready to answer the call – Dylan Hartley, Rory Best, Jamie George and Fraser Brown – but Taylor’s impact at Wasps has been the spark plug that has propelled them to genuine Premiership and European contenders, just as his absence has relegated Sale Sharks to a team scrapping it out near the bottom of the Premiership.
One of the modern breed of hookers who offers every bit as much in the loose as he does at the set-piece, Taylor has made the most of Luke Cowan-Dickie’s early season injury to propel himself up England’s hooker hierarchy. With both Hartley and George looking likely to tour, it’s hard to see Gatland opting for three English players at the position, but Taylor is poised to make the most of any injuries that occur among the British and Irish pool of hookers and would certainly not represent a diminishing of quality should he tour.