The summer tour selections are weeks away, so who will be inked in and will there be any surprises? RW looks into its crystal ball
By Alex Shaw
With the announcement of the home nations squads for the summer tours just days away, the subject of bolters is one which is on many people’s minds.
We take a look at two prominent bolter candidates – who weren’t involved in their country’s Six Nations squads – from each of the home nations and give a verdict on whether or not we think they’ll make the trip.
Teimana Harrison, Northampton Saints and England
Samu who? It is a testament to the impact Teimana Harrison has had this season that Northampton fans are able to make jokes about the departure of their highly-influential American number eight. The New Zealand-born back rower, who qualifies to wear the rose through his English father, has filled Saints’ void at eight admirably, carrying with devastating effect and battling at the breakdown with intensity and no lack of skill.
Verdict – He makes it. With the prospect of a Sean McMahon, Michael Hooper and David Pocock Wallaby back row, England need to have a plan to deal with the tempo those three will inject into the game. Using Harrison as a foil to James Haskell or Chris Robshaw, or pairing him with Jack Clifford, could be intriguing ways of countering the threat ‘McPooper’ poses.
Christian Wade, Wasps and England
Few players split England fans like Wade does. The Wasps speedster has been a prodigious attacking talent for years now but has found test opportunities limited due to a perceived weakness in defence. Wade has worked hard to improve the defensive and aerial sides of his game but that still does not seem to be enough to placate a significant amount of fans. The most important question, however, is has it been enough to assuage the worries of Eddie Jones and defence coach Paul Gustard?
Verdict – It’s 50/50. Wade has kicked on since injury denied him a shot at the Six Nations, including a recent six-try performance against Worcester, and he has certainly hit form at just the right time. Chris Ashton and Marland Yarde have had a couple of solid if unspectacular months, whilst Anthony Watson hasn’t quite been able to hit top gear for Bath recently, either. The door is ajar for Wade and he has done everything he could possibly do to take it off its hinges, but international coaches are odd beasts. Only time will tell on this one.
Ellis Jenkins, Blues and Wales
With Justin Tipuric unavailable through a period of rest from concussion, Warren Gatland will be required to explore other options for the role of Sam Warburton’s understudy. Ellis Jenkins has had breakthrough season and is more than capable of donning the six jersey but with Ross Moriarty as explosive cover for Dan Lydiate. With stiff competition from James Davies and the emerging Thomas Young, The openside is rock-solid over the ball and a ferocious tackler. He was recently named ‘Most Promising Player’ at the Welsh Rugby Writers’ awards.
Verdict – Jenkins tours. A potential shot at gold with the GB 7s team could prompt a tough decision for his closest rival, Davies but Jenkins has long been trumpeted as an international in the making and deserves a shot this summer. His selection would also open up the possibility of moving Warburton to six and fielding two natural opensides against the ever-impressive snafflers Ardie Savea and Sam Cane.
Owen Watkin, Ospreys and Wales
Watkin has been omitted from the Wales squad to play at the World Rugby U20 Championship this summer in order for him to have a period of rest and enjoy a full preseason ahead of the intensity of next season. Translated, that likely means Gatland has the destructive centre lined up for a test debut in the 2016/17 season, but that doesn’t mean people won’t speculate about his chances of boarding the plane to New Zealand this summer. Even at just 19-years-of-age, Watkin already displays a frightening combination of physical ability and technical midfield skills, as befitting a former fly-half.
Verdict – It’s one summer too early for Watkin. That said, an injury to any one of Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies or Scott Williams could see this talented and versatile midfielder fast-tracked. Keep your passport handy, Owen.
Quinn Roux, Connacht and Ireland
The subject of bolters and Ireland don’t tend to go hand-in-hand too often. Joe Schmidt rarely throws players in at the deep end and has a group he trusts already at his disposal. Roux, however, has intimate knowledge of South Africa and has been playing at a consistently high level this season with Connacht. He made Ireland’s 45-man training squad last month and is clearly on Schmidt’s radar.
Verdict – Narrowly misses out. With Ultan Dillane providing the Irish engine room with some much-needed dynamism during the Six Nations and Iain Henderson once-again fit, it’s difficult to see a space opening up for Roux at this point. Roux’s saving grace could be Schmidt opting to use Henderson as a blindside flanker, should the Kiwi wish to bulk up Ireland’s pack to take on the Springboks.
Matt Healy, Connacht and Ireland
Ireland aren’t short of full-backs in their back line but given that that’s the way Schmidt likes them to operate, Matt Healy’s skills at that position bode well for him this summer. Healy has shone at wing and (briefly) full-back this season for Connacht, revelling in their willingness to play from all areas of the pitch. You’ll see pigs fly before you see Schmidt adopt that same style with Ireland but there can be little doubt that Healy would relish the firm pitches of South Africa and bring plenty to Ireland’s back three.
Verdict – He squeezes in. There will be times when Ireland need to chase the game against South Africa this summer and Healy is as good an option to turn to in that scenario as anyone. Ireland can’t look to simply counter the Springboks, they will need to find ways to attack them and this Connacht star would give them that.
Jamie Ritchie, Edinburgh and Scotland
From the limited bolter opportunities of Ireland to the overflowing possibilities of Scotland. No one in the Scotland camp will be taking Japan lightly following their exploits at the Rugby World Cup last year, but it does allow for more experimentation than taking on one of the ‘big three’. Ritchie has excelled at U20 and domestic level over the past two seasons and the flanker has all the hallmarks of a future Scotland captain. Ritchie’s teammates Blair Kinghorn and Magnus Bradbury are two other dark horses to make the squad.
Verdict – Vern Cotter takes him. With just two professional, top tier club sides in Scotland, Cotter knows the importance of talent identification and fast-tracking the right prospects into the senior national team. The benefits of Scotland’s two-match tour of Japan to Ritchie’s rugby education would be considerable.
Scott Cummings, Glasgow Warriors and Scotland
Everything that was just said about Ritchie also applies to Cummings. He is a highly-talented young player, having displayed that prodigiously at U20 level, and has leadership qualities which separate him from the crowd. His playing opportunities at Glasgow should increase next season following the departure of Leone Nakarawa and the combination that he could form with Jonny Gray should be salivating for Glasgow and Scotland fans alike.
Verdict – He captains Scotland at the U20 Championship. With the Gray brothers entrenched in the engine room and Grant Gilchrist first in line for an opportunity behind them, Cotter could see Cummings remaining with the U20 side as being more beneficial for the lock this summer.