Former Lions coach Ian McGeechan believes time is against injured England midfielder Manu Tuilagi recovering sufficiently to play his way into contention for 2021 tour selection to South Africa. It was October 1 when Sale boss Steve Diamond revealed that summer signing Tuilagi had been ruled out for six months due to a torn achilles suffered at Northampton on September 29.
That prognosis means he will miss the 2021 Six Nations with England and won’t be available for Sale’s new Premiership campaign until April – a return which is around the same time when Warren Gatland is expected to sit down and formalise his squad of 35 or 36 players to take on the Springboks in a tour that begins with the June 26 ‘home’ warm-up versus Japan at Murrayfield.
Tuilagi came off the third Test bench in Sydney when the Lions clinched the 2013 series versus Australia but he missed the 2017 tour to New Zealand after suffering cruciate knee ligament damage with Leicester.
The centre bounced back to become part of the furniture in Eddie Jones’ midfield for England’s run to the 2019 World Cup final, but time could now be against the 29-year-old staking his claim for Lions inclusion following his latest injury setback.
McGeechan, the ex-Lions centre who coached the tourists on their two most recent visits to South Africa in 1997 and 2009, had chosen Tuilagi at inside centre in his 2021 first Test XV when writing for the Telegraph last May.
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However, serious injury at Franklin’s Gardens now looks to have scuppered that futuristic Tuilagi pick. “It will be touch and go whether he makes it,” said former Lions boss McGeechan to RugbyPass. “Injuries are always an issue when you’re trying to put a Lions squad together and you keep your fingers crossed as well in some respects.
“It’s going to be interesting what you look at there. I like (Henry) Slade but I’d have him as an outside centre, not as an inside centre, and there could be some players that come through. (Robbie) Henshaw can play either position actually. There is also (Garry) Ringrose.
“The two Irish centres have played some good rugby, but you need them fit to be able to have a look. There’s (Nick) Tompkins and I like Sam Johnson but he has got to play again. He has been injured a lot. There is all the talk about (Ollie) Lawrence at the moment coming in with England, big but actually skilful.
“Maybe I’m biased but I still think of the Scott Gibbs/Jerry Guscott type partnership or in 2009 Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts – to me that was the best centre partnership in world rugby at the time and they had never ever played together. That is sometimes what the Lions brings out, not just the chemistry but the opportunity for two players who have been so good but never played together.
“It will come back to how Warren will see what the midfield looks like. I would still want to look at that sort of combination, but it is a personal thing when you are looking at how you see a team evolving. Sometimes the chemistry comes out of the players once you get them together which happens more with the Lions than any other team.”
While injury has robbed the predicted McGeechan backline of Tuilagi, he is still standing by his back three of Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson, as well as the fit-again Jonathan Davies at outside centre and Owen Farrell at out-half.
His predicted scrum-half, though, Wales’ Gareth Davies, had been out until recently with a knee injury, giving McGeechan further food for thought on a fresh No9. “Conor Murray, I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t go. It will be interesting to see if he [Gatland] does take three scrum-halves.
“You do need to. If you do get an injury it is a position you need to always have one on the bench and another available. Conor Murray has got the experience, but to be fair Ben Youngs played really well last weekend. If he has a huge Six Nations in 2021, he must be in the frame.
“It is interesting – you look at the French now with how they are playing, and New Zealand and South Africa, a lot of things happen off nine more than ever and we have been a little bit slow to get to scrum-halves that actually are a threat from the base. That is something that could be quite key to what the Lions can do in South Africa.”
Switching to the forwards, McGeechan was pleased to see seven of his eight picks – No1 Rory Sutherland, No2 Jamie George, No4 Maro Itoje, No5 James Ryan, No6 Jamies Ritchie, No7 Tom Curry and No8 Billy Vunipola – all going strong six months after he put first pen to paper.
The one bone of contention, though, was tighthead where his No3 pick, Tadhg Furlong, has yet to make a post-lockdown appearance due to injury and is unlikely to play for Ireland in the Nations Cup. Asked for an alternative, McGeechan said: “(Zander) Fagerson would be in the mix. I personally like him. You have got the English front row (Kyle Sinckler) which certainly you have to have in mind.
“That XV I picked (for the Telegraph) was a Test team and I can assure you I have never to this day picked the correct Test team from week one of the tour because things evolve. Some players really settle and take it in, and I have never got the Test team right from week one of a tour.
“That’s what you need. Warren is good at that, keeping an open mind and looking at what is evolving in training, what is evolving in the game, how combinations are starting to work together. That is still quite important for ultimately getting the best test team together.”
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"We have looked at that and being able to reduce the size of the squad is a lot easier compared to Australia or New Zealand" ?https://t.co/NgqAABnqhP
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 29, 2020
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