Club-by-club Premiership Lions candidates: Part 1 - Bath to Leicester Tigers
Thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, the northern hemisphere now faces a non-stop 12 months of rugby, which will culminate with the British and Irish Lions heading to South Africa to take on the reigning world champions, the Springboks. Warren Gatland’s charges will certainly have no excuses for being undercooked when they arrive on the African continent.
With the remainder of the Gallagher Premiership and Guinness PRO14 seasons set to resume later this month, before a short break and the beginning of their 2020/21 campaigns, as well as an expanded international window to make up for the premature conclusion of the Guinness Six Nations earlier this year, there is a constant stream of rugby to come.
There will be no shortage of opportunities for Lions bolters, especially as Premiership clubs will have to rotate their squads heavily in the coming weeks, as they introduce midweek matches in order to fulfil their fixture lists for the 2019/20 campaign.
Whilst those Premiership players will be itching to return to the pitch this month in order to help their clubs, it is inevitable that the lure of the Lions in 2021 will have the invitational side in plenty of tour candidates’ heads.
We take a look at each of the Premiership clubs, who their potential Lions tourists could be and identify a dark horse at each for the touring side. We begin with Bath, Bristol Bears, Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester, Harlequins and Leicester Tigers.
For all Bath’s middling efforts domestically and in Europe in recent seasons, they could boast one of the largest contingents of Lions players next year. Watson, Joseph and Faletau have all been there and done it previously, whilst Cokanasiga, Underhill and Stuart are coming forces in international rugby.
Spencer could make the most of Ben Youngs and Conor Murray moving into their 30’s, Ewels is a lineout-centric lock who could move into the equation if George Kruis is off the radar and age begins to catch up with Alun Wyn Jones, and Mercer offers something different to the other back rowers at Gatland’s disposal.
Dark horse – Cameron Redpath
Redpath made the proactive decision to leave Sale Sharks in order to find more playing time and if he hits the ground running in the west country, he has the physical ability and skill set to impress quickly. He would bring ball-handling proficiency to the Lions midfield, especially if the tourists need to move the ball quickly and get it around the edge of the Springboks’ impressive line-speed.
The high-flying Bears, in contrast to Bath, have a much smaller pool of players who would seem to be in Gatland’s thoughts. That said, Sinckler, assuming fitness, will already be inked into the squad and his battle with Tadhg Furlong for the starting jersey is one that should delight rugby fans across the UK and Ireland over the next 10 months.
The more interesting questions will revolve around Earl, who has begun to break into the England squad, and Hughes, whose international career, at least for the time being, seems to be over. Hughes has prospered under Pat Lam and there is no reason to doubt that Earl will not do exactly the same over the coming months. Earl would give Gatland dynamism and energy, whilst Hughes is still one of the premier ball-carriers in England on his day.
Dark horse – Harry Randall
The scrum-half position could be fairly open next year and Gatland may well want to match Faf de Klerk’s energy and speed around the breakdown by including Randall. Size will always be used against Randall, particularly in defence, although there is no denying the high-octane attacking play he is capable of and it is not something which has held back de Klerk, a world champion.
There are a number of Exeter players who look like they on the bubble of the Lions squad at the moment, competing for that number three or four spot on the depth chart at their respective positions. Players such as Cowan-Dickie, Gray and Nowell making the squad would not be surprising at all, though if they were to narrowly miss out, due to the quality of the competition, it would also be understandable.
In terms of more definite selections, Slade and Hogg would seem likely to be on the plane should they both be fit. Gatland has been a vocal fan of theirs in the past and neither player is approaching the end of their prime anytime soon.
Dark horse – Jack Maunder
Similar to Randall, Maunder could make the most of some rejuvenation in the Lions half-back selections. With Nic White having departed, Maunder should get the first crack at making Exeter’s number nine jersey his own and will hopefully build on the early promise he showed when he shot out of the U20s and straight into the England senior squad for their tour of Argentina in 2017.
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Options are relatively few and far between at Kingsholm currently, although the return of May from Leicester should give the Cherry and Whites a solid shot of having a player on the tour. Remarkably consistent and with a well-rounded game and no glaring weaknesses, few would dispute that May deserves to be involved with the Lions next year.
You get the feeling that if 2017 was not going to be Cipriani’s year to don the famous invitational jersey, it is just not going to happen. A stellar year with Gloucester and a potential decline with the 35-year-old Johnny Sexton could yet bring him in from the international wilderness, whilst Singleton will have to show he is capable of consistently being a starting calibre Premiership and international hooker.
Dark horse – Louis Rees-Zammit
The young Welsh wing was lighting up the Premiership before its pandemic-enforced cessation and he has looked to the manor born in professional rugby, despite only leaving school a year ago. The question will be raised as to whether or not, so early in his career, he is physically up to the punishment he would face in South Africa, though the hard surfaces would only bring out the best of his speed and footwork in the wide channels.
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Veterans Marler and Care could both be in the mix, although it is difficult to predict where the former will be in 10 months’ time, having previously flirted with international retirement. Dombrandt has been knocking on England’s door for a season now and he brings the sort of physicality that will be able to match what the Springboks are preparing for the Lions.
If he has lost none of his sharpness following his knee injury, Earle could be an option on the wing, with injuries – not a lack of ability – the only thing that has held him back from reaching his significant potential so far in his career. As for Marchant, he impressed in his short spell with the Blues in Super Rugby and will undoubtedly come back to Harlequins a better and more experienced player as a result.
Dark horse – Marcus Smith
As mentioned earlier, Sexton is in a race against Father Time to make the tour next year and Owen Farrell has previously been considered as a 12, not just purely at 10. Finn Russell and Dan Biggar are front and centre to take spots, though an impressive campaign leading a resurgent Quins side could catch Gatland’s eye, with the young playmaker having an appreciation for space on the pitch that few can match in the northern hemisphere.
It is far from the extensive list of players that Leicester would have tended to proffer in previous years, with their league position proving to be an accurate indication of the international-calibre talent on offer currently at Welford Road. Cole is battling against age somewhat, though he is a player that Gatland has trusted previously and brings a wealth of experience to the group.
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Youngs and Ford will both back themselves, although there is considerable quality for them to contend with, something the latter knows well from previous tours. Genge could be the best bet for Leicester currently, with the loosehead continuing to show his worth for England and certainly ticking the box for extra ability in the loose, in addition to his set-piece responsibilities.
Dark horse – Freddie Steward
Steward flashed his potential during his first season out of school and expect to see his role within the Leicester 23 become more integral over the coming months. The Lions have not shied away from selecting younger players in the back three previously, with Keith Earls and Hogg two of the more prominent selections, though Steward has a significant way to go over the coming months to be in that conversation.
Nevertheless, he has the raw physical skills to make a big impact in senior rugby sooner rather than later, especially as he rounds out his game technically.
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