Of all the questions left fluttering in the spring breeze following the selection of the British & Irish Lions tour party, one looks likely to linger. How many Englishmen lost out as a direct consequence of Eddie Jones’s side trailing in fifth in this year’s Six Nations? A year ago Jones was talking about 20 English Lions; in the end there were only 11, five of them plying their trade in the Championship.
Leaving aside the experienced Saracens contingent, that means just half dozen current English-qualified Premiership players will feature in South Africa, a sobering stat for all involved. With a few notable exceptions, too many red rose players of rare talent are not fulfilling their obvious promise, either ground down mentally and physically by the endless club/country treadmill or ill-served by conflicting coaching ideologies.
Of those six who have made it, three – Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill and Sam Simmonds – play for last season’s double European and Premiership champions Exeter and owe their selection as much to the enlightened Chiefs coaching trio of Rob Baxter, Ali Hepher and Rob Hunter as Twickenham’s influence. Sale’s Tom Curry and Bath’s Anthony Watson are both freakish athletes with every chance of making the Test XV, even if Watson has yet to be involved in a victory over South Africa in his seven years at the highest level.
Which, barring any other late injury call-ups, leaves just one other shining example of class and fortitude, a man who has transcended any number of obstacles, mental and physical, in his dozen years in international rugby. Courtney Lawes may have been the “37th man” sneaked into the squad at the last minute costing an extra £100,000 in tour fees and release payments but, when the crunch came, Warren Gatland could not bring himself to leave home without him.
If it came as a slight surprise to the 32-year-old Lawes himself, given he did not receive a “save the date” message from the Lions and has been out injured since February, it made sense on most other fronts. Against such physical opposition, and with the Springboks’ lineout threat also significant, the touring side can ill afford to bring a lemon to a knife fight.
Having featured in two of the Lions’ Tests in New Zealand four years ago, in addition to his 87 caps for England, few understand what is coming better than the Northampton forward. “It’s going to be a huge physical competition,” he stresses. “Everyone knows what they’re about, what they’re going to throw at you. We have to be prepared mentally for that kind of physical battle and be prepared to put our bodies on the line.”
In that respect Lawes can see why the management wanted to include him as a back five option despite his continuing recovery from a torn pectoral muscle. “I’m very different to the other sixes and second rows. My main point of difference is my physicality, ball-carrying and hitting but I’m still good in the lineout. So I think that really helped my chances and helped me get on tour.
“Obviously they have a great lineout, and a big, physical pack. You’re probably going to need someone big and physical who can jump and be that third lineout option. Otherwise you’ll struggle with them having three jumpers minimum, maybe even four. That hybrid could be ideal for this kind of Test match.”
If the stats are not wholly encouraging – South Africa have won three of the four Tests in which Lawes has featured for England – Lawes will at least have the advantage of being fresh. Having undergone ankle surgery in October he has played just four times this season and has not played since February after requiring further surgery on his chest injury.
He also has fond memories of the 2017 New Zealand tour, having come off the bench in both the second Test win in Wellington and the third Test draw in Auckland. The most vivid highlight, even so, took place off the pitch. “We had a big team meeting with all the boys there and our wives and families sent us video messages inspiring us to keep going. My video was of my daughter and my son telling me my missus was pregnant again, so that was quite a cool moment. When I got back I found out it was twins, so that was a shock!”
The father of four is now keen to repay the faith of those backing him for one more tour of duty. “Luckily Gats knows what I can do and I’ve got a decent history there for him to look at. He will have seen that it doesn’t take me a lot of time to find my form after coming back from injuries. I’m just really excited to go and prove why I’ve been put in the team.” Never mind where the 2021 Lions come from, what really matters is the collective impact they make.