WORLD Cup winner Martin Johnson is convinced England centre Jonathan Joseph is now in pole position for this summer’s British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand after his stunning hat-trick last weekend against Scotland.
Joseph was controversially axed by England boss Eddie Jones for the visit of Italy in round three of the Six Nations but the Bath centre, who started against France and Wales, showed just why he’s the Red Rose’s premier No.13 with a treble against the Auld Enemy.
England secured the Six Nations title for a second successive year against Scotland last weekend and in the process equalled New Zealand’s longest Test winning run of 18 games.
This weekend against Ireland, Jones’ men will have the opportunity to make history as they go in search of back-to-back Grand Slam titles and also a new world record of 19 consecutive Test wins.
Joseph has been confirmed in England’s midfield once again for the visit to Dublin and Johnson, who compared the Bath flyer to his World Cup winning teammate Jason Robinson, has called Joseph the form attacking back in Europe.
“Jonathan Joseph was the most talked about Lions candidate on social media last weekend and I think it’s great,” said Johnson, who is an ambassador for British & Irish Lions Principal Partner Standard Life Investments.
“England clearly spotted something in Scotland’s midfield defence off line-outs and they exploited it ruthlessly.
“It was great from an England point of view, the execution was fantastic and they did some different things in the Championship and it certainly worked.
“If you play a bloke like Jonathan Joseph, on a pitch like that – it’s always going to be dangerous and so it proved at Twickenham.
“People have been comparing him to Jerry Guscott but with a step like that; I think he reminds me more of a player likes Jason Robinson and how he used to play for England.
“He just glides laterally across the pitch but still with great pace and I think he’s a tremendous player and asset for England.
“He has so many frightening qualities as a player. I think he just looks like a more mature player, more mature physically and a more mature bloke and rugby player. I was very impressed with what I saw last weekend.”
Perhaps the most competitive area of the present England side is in the second row – an area of the pack former England skipper Johnson knows all about.
In the absence of George Kruis and with Saracen Maro Itoje moving into the number six jersey, Jones has employed Northampton’s Courtney Lawes alongside Joe Launchbury.
Although wearing the No.5 jersey, Lawes has been packing down in the back row at scrum-time, while his all-round play in the loose is more reminiscent of a marauding back rower.
In England’s opening four games of this year’s Six Nations, Launchbury and Lawes have certainly caught the eye, with former players, pundits and fans alike praising the new-look second row combination.
Johnson believes Lawes’ versatility – he can play at lock or in the back row – makes him an exciting prospect when Lions boss Warren Gatland selects his squad for New Zealand next month.
“I also think Courtney Lawes is now really delivering in an England shirt. Some of his carrying was seriously impressive against Scotland,” he added.
“His tackle count was off the charts, his general play was very good and also his lin out was right up there for me.
“Is he a natural five or six? I don’t think anybody knows the answer just yet but he’s doing the job of both presently and that’s a really useful weapon for England to have.
“He’s got a very good chance of going on this summer’s Lions tour because he can play both positions.
“It’s always a very handy plus point to have versatility on your side because on a tour little injuries can really kill you and so Courtney will certainly be in contention for selection.”
Lions boss Gatland has promised to form the bulk of his tour selections on the form and fitness of those guys who have impressed during the Six Nations.
England No.8 Billy Vunipola missed the opening three games through injury; only returning as a replacement against Scotland last weekend.
He has been selected by England boss Jones from the start for the visit to Ireland this weekend and Johnson is not worried his elongated absence has affected his chances of touring New Zealand.
“Billy’s injury and missing the bulk of the Six Nations is not the end of the world,” added Johnson. “He had credit in the bank in terms of Lions selection and we all know that Billy can play and has been very impressive now for a period of time.
“He’ll be fresh, which is a real bonus, he’s back in contention and I think he will be a serious asset if he’s selected this summer.
“For Warren Gatland it’s almost a positive that Billy has been injured, it means he hasn’t been battered for the whole tournament.”
Martin Johnson is an Ambassador for British & Irish Lions Principal Partner Standard Life Investments.