Richard Bath: Lions bolters key to tour success

Christian Wade of Wasps has been touted for Lions selection. Picture: Getty
Christian Wade of Wasps has been touted for Lions selection. Picture: Getty
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WHAT have Jerry Guscott, Derek Quinnell, Tony O’Reilly, John Bentley, Simon Taylor, Allan Tait, Jason Robinson, Ryan Jones, Tom Croft, Will Greenwood, Tom Smith and Jeremy Davidson all got in common?

They are all bolters – unheralded players whose inclusion in the Lions squad came as a surprise given that they either weren’t able to get into their national teams or boasted just a handful of caps. Virtually all of those players went on tour as surprise picks yet went to play in one or more Tests for victorious Lions teams, and several of them – such as Guscott, who won in Australia and South Africa, and O’Reilly, the most prolific try-scorer in Lions history – etched themselves into Lions folklore.

For Gregor Townsend, who was in a 1997 Lions squad including an array of bolters in Smith, Paul Wallace, Matt Dawson, Greenwood, Barry Williams, Davidson, Tait and Bentley, their presence was key to that tour’s success.

“Guys could play their way into the Test team, and players like Tom Smith and Paul Wallace had only three or four caps between them, and Jeremy Davidson had only been an international for a year, but they all played in the first Test,” says Townsend.

“We had a lot of bolters. Barry Williams and Will Greenwood, for instance, were uncapped, and Matt Dawson wasn’t in the England squad that year. We also had four guys who had been away from Union playing Rugby League, and they brought a hard edge. The inclusion of so many bolters showed that no matter where they came from, everyone had a chance to push for a Test spot. That was crucial to our success.”

The conventional wisdom is that in the professional era the days of the bolter are numbered. But after a Six Nations in which several big names failed to perform, when Warren Gatland announces his Lions squad on Tuesday there is plenty of scope for surprises.

There are many reasons why players who may not have featured in the Six Nations could be in the frame for a Lions spot. Whether it’s promising youngsters who were overlooked, players unlucky enough to play in the same position as an even better countryman, those who have come back from injury, who were ruled out by playing in France, or veterans who were prematurely discarded, there are at least 15 players who have their advocates.

In the backs, several names have been bandied about. There is a perception that the Lions could do with some variety out wide rather than just big men, so Shane Williams, currently scoring freely for Mitsubishi Dynaboars in Japan, has been championed. In the absence of Ospreys 21-year-old wing Eli Walker, the most likely bolter before a back injury last month, the main head of steam has built up behind Wasps’ uncapped 21-year-old Christian Wade, a lightning-fast wing who’s been the Premiership’s leading try-scorer for the past two seasons.

Although they don’t come into the category of classic bolters given that they’re established internationalists, English full-back Ben Foden and Irish utility back Tommy Bowe are also possibilities. Clermont fullback Lee Byrne is another former Lion and Gatland favourite who’s rediscovered his mojo in France, but with his side going for both the Heineken Cup and Top 14 titles, he’s unlikely to be released.

One of the areas of greatest weakness for the Lions is in the centres. Such is the desperation for inspiration that even Gavin Henson’s name has been mentioned. More likely, though, is Luke Marshall, the Ulster centre.

One of the most widely touted possible bolters is Jonny Wilkinson, whose Toulon move took him out of England contention. The sainted one has been playing so well for the French side that his name is pushed forward by those same stuck records who would love to see Sir Clive Woodward back at Twickenham. However, the Lions have two decent stand-offs, and Toulon coach Bernard Laporte said he hasn’t been approached to gauge any of his players’ availability. Up front, that rather puts the kibosh on those who thought Toulon openside Steffon Armitage and team-mate, prop Andrew Sheridan, were contenders, while Clermont’s Nathan Hines is also unlikely to be released.

In the second row, former Lions skipper Paul O’Connell looks to have come from zero to possible captaincy candidate after he marked his return from injury with a performance of sustained menace as Muster beat Quins. By contrast, recently fit again blindside Dan Lydiate, with no Heineken Cup games to prove his worth, will struggle to force himself into Gatland’s plans.

No.8 is an issue, with Toby Faletau the form man and Tom Wood, Ben Morgan, Johnnie Beattie and Jamie Heaslip all battling for the second spot. Although Gatland is unlikely to take up the advice of so many English papers and pick the game but slow 34-year-old Nick Easter, one good outside bet for a bolter’s spot is Wasps’ explosive uncapped 20-year-old No.8 Billy Vunipola, who is perfectly suited to the hard grounds of Oz.