Eight Premiership stars hoping to muscle their way into British & Irish Lions contention this season

The start of the 2020/21 Gallagher Premiership season marks the beginning of a journey that for some will finish with a tour against World Champions South Africa next summer. Here we pick out a few names Warren Gatland will be watching closely.

By Callum Davis Published: 18 November 2020 - 5.07pm

With the start of the 2020/21 Gallagher Premiership season upon us, players across the country will already have one eye on next summer and the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.

The fight to be front and centre in the Lions shop window will be in the back of everyone's mind with just under nine months to go until the first Test in Johannesburg.

Ahead of what is set to be a fascinating race for selection, BT Sport considers which domestic stars will be hoping to catch the eye of head coach Warren Gatland.

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Jack Willis - Wasps

He's only made one appearance for England to date, but the Premiership's turnover king will already be on Gatland's back-row shortlist.

Wasps went from mid-table also-rans to Premiership finalists last season and Willis was a major factor in that transformation. 

His incredible tally of 45 turnovers for the season was a league record, earning him the Player of the Year award and a first England call up. The 23-year-old made an immediate impact on the international stage, scoring a try on his debut against Georgia last weekend.

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“He’s such an impactful player, he has so many big moments in games that either wrestle back momentum, create momentum or encourage teammates to become better players," said BT Sport's Ugo Monye.

"He's just been simply outstanding - in every part of his game. Whether it be carrying, lineout, defensively, but more so than anything at the breakdown. Everyone is aware of these new law interpretations and he’s adapted to them really well. It’s been a key feature of his game.

“His work rate is off the scale but he’s not just been high impact, he’s high quality in everything that he does and that for me is what separates good Gallagher Premiership Rugby players and internationals and potential future internationals.”

Gatland has an abundance of riches in the back-row position but a strong showing in the Autumn Nations Cup could see Willis play a significant role in South Africa.

Max Malins - Bristol Bears

Another prodigious young English talent taking their first steps on the international stage. Malins has been called up to Jones' Autumn Nations Cup squad as a full-back but he is just as dangerous at fly-half.

"He reminds me a little bit of a young Beauden Barrett, who wants to play fly-half but played 15 in the early years for Hurricanes and the All Blacks," said his former Saracens head coach, Mark McCall.

“Max has got an acceleration that not too many have and the ability to make things happen really fast. He can play 10 and 15 at a high level."

The 23-year-old has been a Saracens player since 2015 but it's on loan at Bristol where he has really been making waves.

Malins played an integral role in the Challenge Cup-winning campaign last season, scoring in the semi-final extra-time win over Bordeaux and again in the final as the Bears downed three-time Champions Cup winners Toulon to win their maiden European crown.

"This guy's stock has gone up massively," said BT Sport pundit Ben Kay after the Challenge Cup triumph.

"He won man of the match in the semi-final and then made the break to win them the final effectively.

"He's almost morphing into Alex Goode as another second playmaker who works in the wide channels with exceptional footwork... he's really having a field day."

Having recently made an impressive start to life as an England player in the 40-0 win over Georgia, watch out for the young playmaker making a charge for Lions selection ahead of a huge year for club and country.

Ollie Lawrence - Worcester Warriors

Manu Tuilagi's injury misfortune could be Ollie Lawrence's gain.

A combination of smart running lines, pace and power make Lawrence a worthy potential replacement for the injured centre as Eddie Jones and Gatland consider their options in midfield.

The 21-year-old Worcester Warriors player made his debut off the bench in the final Six Nations game against Italy but is poised to make more of an impact in the Autumn Nations Cup. 

Gatland was renowned for picking heavyweight ball-carriers in the centres for Wales, a style of play that became known as 'Warrenball'.

Should he decide to revert to type for the tour to South Africa then Lawrence's name will be top of the list for power runners capable of breaking the gain-line.

His head coach at Worcester, Alan Solomons, has no doubts that Lawrence has a bright future ahead of him. 

He said: “He is ready for the opportunity. He is extremely confident. The big occasion won’t faze him at all. He will rise to it.

“He got quite a few Premiership games under his belt last season. That has stood him in good stead. He has got fantastic genetics. A big strong boy with a lot of power but with really good feet.

"Tuilagi is exceptionally powerful. Ollie has got power, too, but at this stage in their careers, Ollie’s footwork is better and he has probably got a yard of pace on him as well.”

Ted Hill - Worcester Warriors

Worcester's youngest-ever Premiership captain was capped as a 19 year-old by Eddie Jones and continues to impress. Hill always stuck out thanks to his athleticism at such a young age, winning collisions and honing his skills in the back row. 

Featuring in an extremely-competitive position, the 21-year-old was recently released from Jones' squad to face Ireland and knows he may have to wait for his second England cap.

Predominantly a flanker, he has the advantage of being able to play across the back row and has been embedded in the England set up for the past 12 months.

Named Warriors captain in the summer, Hill's leadership qualities also make him an enticing prospect for Lions selection as Gatland prepares to pick a youthful touring party to take on the world champions. 

Measuring up at 6ft 5in and nearly 18 stone, his size is bound to appeal to Gatland, too.

If Hill can then translate his leadership qualities to the Test arena, then England and the Lions could benefit in the next 12 months.

Alex Dombrandt - Harlequins

Dombrandt has enjoyed a meteoric rise since joining Quins at the start of the 2018/19 season.

Having taken to Premiership Rugby like a duck to water, Dombrandt received a host of club accolades including Supporter's and Player's Player of the Season. He was also named in the BT Sport's Team of the Year.

The major stumbling block for his Lions dream is his ongoing struggle to force his way into Jones' England plans.

The pool of talent at number eight goes deep with Sam Simmonds, Zach Mercer, Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola all in the frame for selection, but Dombrandt's carrying ability makes him a potential wildcard pick for the Lions.

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“He is such a threat with ball in hand, so physical and direct but he’s coupled that with a real intellect," said former Quin Ugo Monye.

“The lad has gone from playing university rugby just over a year ago to now having the English media calling for him to be in the Six Nations squad. That’s the rise that he has made and that should be an inspiration to everyone else playing lower league rugby.

“He has really paved the way and shown that with really good coaching, loads of hard work and opportunities, you can achieve the heights that he is currently setting.” 

Sam Simmonds - Exeter Chiefs

Few players have the right to feel more hard done by than Sam Simmonds.

Sam and his brother Joe were both left out of Jones’s latest England squad despite playing key roles in Exeter’s European Cup and Premiership triumphs, with the number eight enjoying a stellar year scooping individual and team accolades galore.

No player scored more tries in the Champions Cup (eight), he finished second to Ollie Thorley and Ben Earl in the Premiership in that regard (10 to their 11 respectively), while his impact on both sides of the ball for Exeter has been colossal.

Simmonds has won seven caps for England since making his debut against Argentina in November 2017 and scored two tries against Italy in the 2018 Six Nations.

But a knee injury meant the explosive back-row missed much of last season and was omitted from Jones' England squad for the 2020 Six Nations. 

The Exeter Chiefs number eight will be hoping he has more luck convincing Gatland of his obvious talents than he has been with Jones.

Jacob Umaga - Wasps

The son of former Samoa centre Mike Umaga and nephew of ex-All Blacks captain Tana Umaga, he lived up to his name at Wasps last season. England boss Jones has praised the 22-year-old fly-half's instinctive style of play and will surely give him his first cap this autumn.

“I like the way he attacks the line,” said the Australian when asked about the young fly-half.

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“He reads the game well. When you get quick ball now, you have got to be able to go quickly. You can’t sit back and wait for things to evolve. To do that, you need at 10 a player who is very instinctive who you just can’t coach to do it because they just do it. You saw that when he scored that try [in the Premiership final against Exeter Chiefs].

“They [Wasps] got a couple of quick rucks and he just hits the line flat, runs through the hole, beats the full-back and scores. They are the things you can’t coach and those are the things you are always looking for in players.”

Jones is a notoriously hard man to impress so it bodes well that Umaga has made such a positive impression on the England supremo.

Ollie Thorley - Gloucester

Thorley may be a new face to England fans but he is a familiar one at Gloucester, where he made his debut aged 17 way back in 2013 and was the Premiership's top try-scorer in the 2019-20 season with 11.

Another versatile player, the 24-year-old made his international debut on the wing against Italy but is just at home in the centres.

The rising star was also namechecked by Jones as a potential 'hybrid' player after training for a week with the England forwards ahead of last Saturday's clash with Georgia.

“Ollie has been jumping around there in the line-outs with a smile, seeking information,” England defence coach John Mitchell said. “What’s also great about Ollie is that he is very coachable and the guys are helping him out as well.

“The set-piece would be the biggest challenge for the back, not so much the scrum, but probably the line-out. Once they have knowledge of line-outs then you have to make sure they are getting their execution right in terms of their roles within the line-out. Once you gain confidence and knowledge and that execution then there’s no reason why a back can’t play in the forwards.”

It remains to be seen whether the idea of the auxillary winger who can fulfil duties in the backline and the forwards is anything more than a flash in the pan, but Thorley would be in pole position should Gatland choose to entertain the tactic next summer.