Relegation comes with a whole catalogue of dilemmas for players facing up to a season outside of the top flight, but for a young talent like London Irish’s Alex Lewington the wrench between head and heart is significantly stronger.
Lewington has blossomed at Irish since his move from Leicester in 2014, extending his contract with the club last August after a phenomenal second season with the Exiles in which he scored 12 tries, the same total as Christian Wade and two more than England squad member Semesa Rokoduguni. Justifiably he featured for England against the Barbarians at Twickenham last May as a result.
Irish were crestfallen when Lewington was lost to a broken thumb during this season and no doubt the time will come this off-season where their players and coaching staff wonder what might have been had Lewington not missed a vital six-week chunk of their fight for survival.
To stand out in a side struggling as much as the Exiles is mark of his ability, but Lewington’s skills won’t get the same exposure playing in the Championship as they have done since he left Welford Road in search of first-team rugby.
Loyalty in the professional era is expected less and less with each passing Premiership season, with players all too aware that the window on their careers, and especially in the case of those with international aspirations, is a small one.
Being named by Eddie Jones last week as one of eight uncapped players for May’s camp in Brighton will have given Lewington a timely nudge of how highly he is regarded not just domestically but also by England’s coaching group, despite Irish’s relegation from the Premiership.
Making the final squad for Australia is another matter given that missing from England’s camp this month will be Chris Ashton, Jack Nowell and Christian Wade, with Nowell a clear frontrunner for a wing berth against the Wallabies given his sparkling form for the Chiefs heading into the play-offs.
Alex Lewington though has a foot in the door, and the chance to show Jones what he can offer England as an alternative option with his ability to cover both wing and full-back.
Australia’s harder tracks, when not destroyed by scrums, would appear made for Lewington’s natural pace and footwork, while he has proven to be excellent under the high ball.
Should he stick with the Exiles then he would be the clear favourite to finish next season as the top try scorer in the Championship given his instinct for the line – but for a player with his potential that carries little weight.
Odd as it sounds with Irish relegated, their set-up off the field and young talent emerging through the academy ranks make them feel far like a club on the brink of oblivion. Big names will leave – Sean Maitland and possibly Ben Franks and Matt Symons too – as may a new coaching staff in many ways caught off guard by the rigours of the Premiership in their first season. An instant return to the Premiership though is likely.
Lewington can look to Worcester’s Chris Pennell for advice after the full-back opted to stay with the relegated Warriors when he was also part of the England set-up, but their situations are markedly different, with Pennell a key leadership figure for Worcester while Alex Lewington is the star on the rise at 24.
So many have left Irish in recent years before going on to international honours – Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson in particular – that few eyebrows would be raised if he followed suit. Equally he must feel indebted to the club for putting him firmly on England’s radar.
It is a rotten, career-defining choice for a young player to make. Good luck to him.
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