Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, hardly needed any further food for thought at this late stage of his squad deliberations, but he duly received another tantalising morsel in a final dispatch posted by his lieutenant Steve Borthwick from Milton Keynes on Sunday afternoon.
As much as the headlines from Northampton’s 27-25 defeat by Saracens were dominated by the contest between England captain Dylan Hartley and his understudy Jamie George, the return to fitness of George Kruis was probably of greater significance. The second row is the most competitive area of selection and Kruis’s comeback only complicates an already fiendish equation.
The only guarantee is that come Wednesday afternoon there will be cries of anguish and conspiracy on behalf of those who fail to make the cut. That will only be magnified if Kruis is included on the basis of one performance following four months out injured. The 27-year-old initially sustained a fractured cheekbone on Christmas Eve against Newcastle and was set to return in England’s opening Six Nations match against France only to injure an knee, which required surgery, as well as an ankle in training.
On Sunday, Kruis returned a week ahead of schedule and lasted the full 80 minutes for Saracens, much to his satisfaction. “I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “I have not had too long to get on my feet and do my fitness so it was always going to be a lung burner. I am happy with the result and to be back playing. It is probably just the confidence and the fitness to go out and play. I am pretty happy with my 80 minutes and I’ll just try to build on it.”
Asked if he had chosen a particularly opportune moment to return, Kruis replied: “Not particularly. I know there’s a lot of hype about the Lions selection. I have had such a long year being injured, I just want to get back playing. It’s the only thing on my mind. I just enjoy playing rugby. This is our job and to be training is great but playing is what you want to be doing.”
While Kruis has no form of which to speak, he does have a powerful supporter in Borthwick, the England and now Lions forwards coach who mentored him through the ranks at Saracens. Like Borthwick, Kruis has developed a reputation for being a line-out “nause”. There is no better line-out caller available to Gatland and he also provides a ready-made combination alongside club colleagues George and Maro Itoje.
His other great asset is his impact as a second-row scrummager – England coach Eddie Jones rates him as the best in the northern hemisphere – and even with a second-choice prop pairing of Titi Lamositele and Vincent Koch, Saracens dominated Northampton in that department on Sunday.
All that would have been fed back to Gatland through Borthwick, who would also have highlighted another barnstorming performance by Northampton’s Courtney Lawes, who has been in excellent form since the turn of the year. “Courtney Lawes just seems to be getting better,” Jim Mallinder, the Northampton director of rugby, said. “His carrying and his physicality in attack, he’s been outstanding. Not just in Six Nations but since he’s been back as well.”
Assuming five lock forward are selected then Alun Wyn Jones and Itoje will be automatic selections. Ireland’s Iain Henderson would rank as a probable given how frequently he has been name-checked by Gatland for his ability to play in the second and back row. That leaves two places for Kruis, Lawes and his Six Nations second-row partner Joe Launchbury, Jonny Gray and Luke Charteris to fight over. As harsh as it would be on Gray and especially Launchbury, Kruis and Lawes may have just rubber-stamped their places at Stadium MK.