In recent years the Lions selectors choose from a specific pool of players. But who could be on the plane to New Zealand in the summer if the rules from 1910 were reinstated?
All eyes are on the Six Nations as we approach the final weekend, with discussion focused on the Lions Nations.
England look the complete package, and have the opportunity for a Grand Slam and World Record to prove it. Scotland have obvious quality but look vulnerable to injury. Ireland are wondering how they can look powerful and ineffective at the same time. Wales’ coaches live to fight another day as they deliver on their work-in-progress promise when it matters.
But the overarching discussion is of the 2017 Lions squad. About who has stood out, and who needs to on Saturday: the last chance to shine on the international stage before the squad announcement.
All the excitement and anticipation makes it is easy to forget that there is top-class rugby still being played in the Pro12 and Premiership. Not only could some of the players not involved in the 2017 Six Nations yet earn a Lions place, there are imported players of the highest calibre who may count themselves unlucky to be ineligible for selection.
On the 1910 tour to South Africa, the British team suffered an injury setback. They drafted in a player who was registered with Bristol: a utility forward called Tom Richards.
The Times described him as “the first man to be picked for Earth if we were ever to play Mars.” So the fact that he went on to gain two test-caps for the Lions may only be surprising in that it was not more.
But the modern rugby fan may be surprised by the fact that at the time he made his Lions debut, he had already been capped twice for Australia. This unique quirk of rugby history makes him the only player ever to have represented the Lions and a country outside of the home nations. His achievement is commemorated in the naming of Tom Richards Cup, which the Lions play Australia for every twelve years.
After touring with the Lions, Richards gained one more cap for Australia. Then, as if setting a trend for his modern-day compatriots, signed with a French club – Toulouse. He went on to serve in the First World War and was awarded the military cross.
The argument over international eligibility rages on, with different rugby unions beginning to tighten their rules, and in later years the Lions have followed suit. In 1910 you only had to be registered to a British or Irish team to qualify. In 2017 you must now at least qualify for a Home Nations national side.
This doesn’t mean that you have to have been capped, though. 90 uncapped players have won spots on the official Lions tours. But only one in the professional era – Will Greenwood on the victorious 1997 tour to South Africa.
So, in memory of the great Tom Richards, and as a celebration of the players who have gone overlooked during the 2017 Six Nations, here is a list of five players that could have a shot of making the 2017 Lions squad if the eligibility rules from 1910 still stood.
- DTH van der Merwe
The Scarlets winger was born in South Africa, and has been capped by Canada on 40 occasions. He impressed at the 2015 World Cup in particular and has a knack for finding the try-line in big games. He will be sorely missed by the Scarlets when he moves to the Newcastle Falcons next season.
- Willie le Roux
Wasps’ le Roux is a real livewire wherever he plays on the pitch, and has played across the backline, scoring nine tries in his 41 caps for South Africa. He would add vital utility and injury cover to a touring squad in addition to his natural pace.
- Tyler Blyendaal
Once considered an understudy to Dan Carter at the Crusaders, the Kiwi now finds himself one of the key players in a resurgent Munster side. Capped by the Baby Blacks on five occasions, he slid down the pecking order of outside halves in New Zealand. He offers a top-class all round game including a solid boot and a taste for scoring tries.
- Charles Piutau
The All Black flyer spent time at Wasps before crossing the Irish Sea to find his new home with Ulster. He lit the Pro12 on fire early in the season with the sheer power of his running game. His uncanny ability to thread offloads through the eye of a needle keeps the ball alive and builds intensity.
- Louis Picamoles
Although the French Number Eight is involved in this year’s Six Nations, France have shown fairly indifferent form. Despite this, the Frenchman earned huge plaudits against England in Round One of the tournament. The Northampton Saints man provides guaranteed go-forward ball and brings explosiveness and quality all over the pitch.
Alex Morris, Pundit Arena
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