Before every Lions tour, a bolter emerges from left field, forcing their way into contention. Jeremy Guscott was picked for the 1989 tour having won just a single England cap, while another England centre, Will Greenwood, was an uncapped selection on the famous 1997 tour to South Africa.
On the last Lions tour, the selections of Jared Payne and Ben Te’o certainly raised some eyebrows.
For the purposes of this article, to give some parameters to the loose but frequently used term ‘bolter’, a player must have won no more than 10 international caps or be making a comeback from an international hiatus, caused by injury or other means.
These players may all be long shots, but they could have a chance.
Joe Marchant (England, 3 caps)
The Harlequins centre is yet to nail down a place in the England side and is currently enjoying a now interrupted sojourn in Super Rugby with the Blues. The 23-year-old has consistently been Quins’ best back for three seasons, combining pace, deceptive footwork and intelligent reading of the game.
If Marchant can force his way into the England midfield on his return from Super Rugby, a loan spell that was actively encouraged by Eddie Jones, then he could find himself in the reckoning as the centre with an outside break. Garry Ringrose and Jonathan Joseph might have something to say about that, mind.
Caelan Doris (Ireland, 2 caps)
The number eight’s Six Nations was brutally curtailed after a head knock forced him off the pitch just minutes into his debut. Doris returned from the bench against England, but coronavirus postponements limited any further opportunities.
Anyone who has watched Doris play for Leinster will see that he is a special talent. A powerful and athletic ball carrier who makes yards when none should be made. The dip in form of both Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau just opens the door for Doris as an outside shot.
George Horne (Scotland, 10 caps)
Scrum-half is possibly the most up for grabs position. While Horne is not Scotland’s regular starter, he is a superb player to bring on from the bench and the pace and energy he brings could be a valuable asset to Warren Gatland. His performances this year for Glasgow have also shown improved maturity and game control.
Horne has the potential to make the Lions squad, even if he does not nail down the starting scrum-half berth for Scotland.
James Lowe (Ireland, uncapped)
By the time the 2021 Lions tour rolls around, the New Zealand-born winger will be eligible for Ireland and the Lions too. Lowe would qualify via the controversial residency rule, which he himself described as a “stupid rule”. In fairness to the Leinster star, he also said “I would love to play international rugby and it would be such a privilege to represent Ireland.”
Lowe is a phenomenal player. His power and offloading ability makes him a nightmare for defences. While he may not be a popular choice, there is no doubt Lowe is right up there with the very best wingers across Britain and Ireland.
Jack Willis (England, uncapped)
The best type of bolter is an uncapped bolter. The Lions have a ludicrously strong array of options in the back row which makes Willis a genuine long shot. However, the Wasp is a unique talent.
Willis is already one of the best in the Premiership at the breakdown while also being a powerful ball carrier, a lineout option and a destructive tackler. It is very rare to find a back rower who is so flexible over the ball while also being 6ft 3in and 110kg.
Eddie Jones named Willis in England’s touring party to South Africa in 2018, before an injury stopped him getting on the plane. It would be a great moment for the 23-year-old if he could make the plane to South Africa, this time with a Lions logo embroidered upon his clothing.
Dan Leavy (Ireland, 11 caps)
Leavy has not played an international match since November 2018, due to a spate of horrific knee injuries. However, the Leinster flanker is back out on the pitch training and should be fit to play next season, whenever that may be.
While the Lions will not be short of options to fill the number seven jersey, the pre-injury form of Leavy suggests he is as good as any of the players available. If the 25-year-old can get fit, and get back on the pitch for Ireland, then he has a great chance of making the trip.