In the twelfth article in this series analyses, here are the options Warren Gatland has on the wings for the British and Irish Lions 2017 tour of New Zealand.
Due to the extent of the depth in this position in each of the four nations, this article will be split into four separate pieces with each one focusing on the best wingers from each country. First up is England.
England: Jack Nowell, Jonny May, Anthony Watson, Semesa Rokoduguni, Chris Ashton, Christian Wade, Marland Yarde
Missed the autumn series with a quadriceps injury, Nowell has 18 caps for England and is still only 23 years old. A clinical finisher who has a high work rate for a winger, Nowell’s defence is arguably the worst aspect of his game – as was highlighted by Israel Folau on the 2016 tour to Australia.
Nowell has been named in the England squad for the upcoming Six Nations and is likely to start ahead of Jonny May, with Anthony Watson expected to start on the other wing. He will therefore get plenty of opportunities during the tournament to showcase why he should be on the plane to New Zealand come the end of May.
Despite it being debatable whether May is best as a winger or blindside flanker, we decided that it’s probably best to mention him in this installment. He has earned 22 caps for England (all starts) and scored 40 points for the Red Rose, including a scorcher against the All Blacks. May might be one of the fastest men in world rugby, but other aspects of his performances have been singled out as being below par for an international level winger – including his tackling and defensive positional play.
With Watson and Nowell back in the England squad for the upcoming Six Nations, May is expected to see less opportunities in the starting 15 and so will not have as many opportunities to show why his somewhat narrow skill set could be useful to Gatland on this Lions tour.
Watson missed the 2016 autumn internationals due to a broken jaw and has played three games for Bath since returning from injury. He has been touted as having all the desired skills of a top tier international winger, with his pace and versatility arguably his strongest attributes – he has even earned comparisons to Jason Robinson (although Christian Wade may be closer to the England legend in terms of playing style).
Watson has been named in Eddie Jones’ squad for the 2017 Six Nations and is likely to start as a winger, allowing him the opportunities to impress Gatland at international level. At 22 years of age and having already earned 24 English caps, Watson is anticipated to have a long England career ahead of him and could be an exciting prospect on the Lions wing.
When the Lions toured Australia in 2013, Rokoduguni had just finished his first season at Bath after several years of serving in the British Army (to which he is still attached). Currently, Rokoduguni is joint-second on the Aviva Premiership’s try scoring list for the 2016/17 season with eight to his name – one behind the pocket-rocket Christian Wade.
A solid all round player, Rokoduguni has not complained about his lack of call-ups to the England squad (presumably because he is Fijian through birth, and he’s just that sort of person). Currently one of the more accomplished finishers in the English game, he could feel aggrieved at not being given more game time within the national set-up, although at 29 years of age he may not be able to offer much in the long-term as May, Nowell or Watson.
Ashton has not featured for England since the 2014 tour of New Zealand, which the All Blacks won 3-0. Perhaps best known for having his head taken off by Manu Tuliagi or the “Ash-Splash”, the ex-rugby league player is hated and loved by rugby communities in equal measure. He has won silverware with Saracens in the past few seasons, contributing 327 points since arriving from Northampton in 2012.
Moving to Toulon at the end of this season, Ashton will no doubt expect to challenge for honours in Europe and in France, and arguably still has the pace and skills to do a job for England or the Lions. However, his attitude (such as refusing to play for the England Saxons when called up) is something Gatland may not want as part of his overall squad.
His lack of height and subsequent lack of physicality may be reasons that he has not been called up by Eddie Jones yet, but he is arguably England’s most exciting prospect on the wings and should be given the chance to add to his solitary England cap, highlighted by the fact that he is currently the Aviva Premiership’s top try scorer with nine to his name.
At 25 years of age, Wade still has plenty to give the national team and is one of the rare players who can open up any defence in the world. His speed and agility might be his most noticeable attributes, but he has developed his skill set in recent seasons to be able to contribute in more ways than one. Not included in Jones’ squad for the 2017 Six Nations, Wade could be a wild card pick for Gatland and the Lions after already featuring against the Brumbies in the 2013 tour of Australia.
Once touted as the next big thing in English rugby, Yarde has arguably failed to live up to this hype despite being capped 11 times by England. His positional play in defence has been singled out as possibly the worst aspect of his game, whilst his speed and agility are not up to the same standards of Wade or May.
Yarde has been left out of Jones’ squad for the upcoming Six Nations but at 24 years of age has many years left to change public opinion on his rugby playing ability, but he is likely to remain an outsider for Lions selection this time around.
Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena