The tradition of selecting a ‘bolter’ for the Lions tour is a well established one. It is the policy of picking an uncapped player – or one with little experience – and thrusting them straight into the Lions limelight. These are players who have captured the imagination of the coaches but who, for whatever reason, have been overlooked so far by their national coach.
This policy is an ancient one, and in more recent times it has had a pretty good success rate. In 1971 Derek Quinnell, father of Scott, Craig and Gavin, was selected to tour New Zealand and ended up starting the third test that saw them to the brink of victory on the tour. They did win, and to this day they are the only Lions team to have won in Kiwi territory.
In 1989, a fairly unknown Bath centre by the name of Jeremy Guscott was flown out to New Zealand to replace countryman Will Carling. He had experienced just one or two tests for England at the time, but ended up playing a key role in the final two tests that took them to victory.
It is not just younger, lesser known players that can make a name for themselves as bolters, however. There are stories of older players, out in the international wilderness, who have come in and done a job for the Lions. In 1997 John Bentley, who had won the last of his two England caps nine years previously, was called upon by Sir Ian McGeechan despite having spent the last few years playing League. He played the final two tests of that tour, including the tour-winning second test.
And then, of course, there is Jason Robinson, the man who toured Australia in 2001 after only having switched to the 15-man code seven months previously. He lit up the tour with his sparkling feet and electric pace, scoring tries in the first and final tests.
Ryan Jones built his career on some barnstorming performances in New Zealand in 2005, while on the 2009 tour Tom Croft was one of the standout players despite only having a handful of England caps to his name.
So who are the contenders to tour Australia this time as bolters? It is Robinson’s prowess in 2001 that has led many to call for Christian Wade’s involvement, and he seems to be the frontrunner in the uncapped category. His startling likeness to Robinson in terms of style of play mean he could well get a phone call from Gatland. He has shown time and again this season that he can score tries when he has absolutely no right to – there are very few players in world rugby who possess that ability.
Staying with England but moving along the backline, Kyle Eastmond and Joel Tomkins are two league converts who could provide something different to the other centre options, who have a rather one dimensional look about them. Eastmond’s ability to cover all positions from 12-15 is another bonus. It would be pretty harsh on whoever is dropped, however, if either of these two were selected, but they could be considered as reserves. Billy Twelvetrees, with just four caps for England (and only one start) is perhaps a more viable option.
It is worth noting that the likely high number of Welshmen in the squad following their Six Nations win means an uncapped player touring from their ranks is unlikely. Eli Walker would have been in contention had he not suffered a serious injury prior to the Six Nations.
Steffon Armitage has been in fine form for the past couple of years for Toulon, but the fierce competition in the back-row means he is unlikely to make the cut, and indeed he is not playing so much better than the other contenders to force Gatland’s hand.
In terms of old stagers, it is tempting to look across the Channel once again. Jonny Wilkinson will be firmly in Gatland’s thoughts, but with a record such as his would he really count as a bolter? Perhaps not. The same can be said of Nathan Hines, the grizzled Scottish warrior who was such a success in 2009. Nick Easter is another who has had an excellent domestic campaign. He has been overlooked by England because, at 34, he is too old for their squad looking to build towards the World Cup in 2015, but he could certainly provide valuable experience on a one-off tour such as the Lions. The back-row may be an area of strength, but no.8 is probably the weakest of the three positions. In that sense, the uncapped Billy Vunipola could also be in with a shout, although he has gone off the boil slightly since agreeing a move to Saracens. He will be livid that an injury deprived him of his chance to show what he could do in the Six Nations.
The beauty of a bolter is that it could be anyone, and as a result there are far too many players to mention here. Who would you like to see going though? Do you think this squad needs a bolter, or are there too many well-established options to include one?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43