British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland should sit up and take note of Chris Ashton’s performance in Saracens’ 53-10 mauling of Bath on Sunday, according to his director of rugby Mark McCall.
Ashton scored two of Saracens’ eight tries that kept them in touch with Wasps and Exeter Chiefs in the battle to secure a Premiership home semi-final, with the wing beginning to count down his days at the club as he prepares to head to France next season to join Toulon.
That journey to the south of France could yet take a detour to New Zealand though, should Gatland decide that he wants Ashton’s clinical finishing in his squad. The call-up would be a surprise, given Ashton has not played for England since the 2014 tour of the same country, with head coach Eddie Jones actually in attendance at Allianz Park to see the wing send out a statement.
While he will no longer be available for selection with Jones, Gatland can still call on the former rugby league man, and McCall believes he should take a look at him before deciding his squad ahead of the 19 April announcement.
“Chris was really good, you could see what a clever rugby player he is,” McCall said. “He did a lot of things in the game that people don't give him credit for in terms of the attacking kicks used and where he pops up.
“Sean Maitland on our other wing was good and the two of them gave performances that Warren Gatland might be interested in.
“Chris showed enough out there to make people curious and to have a look and it was the same with Sean as well.”
Despite Saracens remaining reigning domestic and European champions, and being one of the regular challengers for silverware since the last Lions tour, Gatland is yet to contact McCall about the availability of his players. The likes of Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell look assured of a place in his touring party, but he has not yet spoken with McCall about any of his players, let alone England exile Ashton.
“[I’ve] Not spoken to Warren,” he added. “Warren Gatland hasn’t asked about the availability of any of our players.”
British and Irish Lions captain candidates
British and Irish Lions captain candidates
1/6 Alun Wyn Jones
Jones is probably still the leading candidate for the captaincy, even if his, and Wales’, Six Nations was not what they were hoping for. Jones took the Welsh armband from Sam Warburton for the championship but at times looked uneasy at making a call, such as when he was overruled when Wales opted to go for the corner against Scotland, rather than taking the shot at three points. Jones captained the Lions in the deciding third Test against Australia in 2013 and is a guaranteed starter if fit – something Gatland is keen for his captain to be, although not a necessity.
2/6 Sam Warburton
Had Wales not finished fifth in the championship with three defeats, there is a good chance Warburton would have been named player of the tournament. The way he reacted to losing the Wales captaincy and moving to blindside flanker has been phenomenal and he is now the bookies’ favourite after his performances and having already led the Lions to a tour victory. Of Warburton’s chances, Gatland said: “He's a different captain to some other players. He leads by example. He doesn't say a lot but he has had that experience. He's one of the guys potentially in contention, definitely.” However, he has been so good without the burden of the armband, would giving it to him hinder his performances?
3/6 Dylan Hartley
Before his red card for Northampton in December, Hartley was the frontrunner for the armband but now his place on the plane is not even assured. For England, Jamie George has impressed and could usurp his captain’s position over the next 12 months, with Hartley arguably not even the third most impressive Hooker the home nations boasted during this year’s Six Nations. However, his grit and fire has been one of the reasons for England’s success under Eddie Jones and it is that sort of personality which could be vital in the hotbed of New Zealand.
4/6 Rory Best
The way Best led Ireland to ending England’s unbeaten run shows that he has the ability to motivate the players around him in tough and gritty situations. He has also captained a side to a win over the All Blacks, the only candidate who is able to say that. Best is certainly a viable candidate but the question mark that remains hanging over him is if he is good enough to start at hooker against the All Blacks? Hartley, Best, George and Wales’ Ken Owens are all in with a shout.
5/6 Owen Farrell
Farrell was player of the tournament after a stunning Six Nations. His kicking is up there with Leigh Halfpenny’s as amongst the best in the world and he has the right mentality of a captain having been schooled under Eddie Jones. Farrell looks certain to start at 12 for the Lions and would make a fierce captain. However, having not captained an international side from the start, how would he fare leading the most intense tour the Lions have embarked on? It is a tough challenge for the most weathered of captains, never mind a novice.
6/6 Conor Murray
An outside shout for captain but the way he controls the game from around the ruck shows his importance to the Lions. He, like Best, has experience of beating the All Blacks and of a winning Lions Tour (like everyone on this list, other than Hartley). He has captaincy experience but while he was a certain starter a month ago, the performances of Rhys Webb have given Gatland a real decision to make. He said he wants to pick his squad first and then his captain and that could go against Murray in the decision-making process if Webb is now considered ahead of him.
One of the players he will take a keen interest in will be the injured lock, George Kruis, who was here at Allianz Park alongside his mum in a Mother’s Day treat. The England lock has not played since suffering a knee injury in England training ahead of the opening Six Nations match against France, and he is not due to return until next month – when Gatland will be announcing the squad.
“George will probably be available when they select the squad,” added McCall. “He has an outside chance of making the Northampton game [on 16 April] which would be three days before they announce the squad. That's a long shot and it's probably the week after.”Reuse content