Thursday, December 2News That Matters

Sinckler has been using the anger to perform for Bristol Bears after what has been an emotional week

Kyle Sinckler should have been picked for the Lions tour, as he proved on Saturday with powerful deeds and profound words. It was the perfect response to a savage setback.

The England prop was left out of Warren Gatland’s British and Irish squad on Thursday, which was a seismic shock to himself and pretty much everyone else. It took him just two days to make a mockery of the decision.

In 2017, as a rookie ‘bolter’, Sinckler emerged impressively in New Zealand and ended up playing in the Tests, before going on to become England’s pre-eminent tighthead and enjoying a superb World Cup. So he has the pedigree and also the X-factor – with his class as a distributor in open play – meaning his selection must have come down to concerns about his set-piece work or temperament, or both.  

Kyle Sinckler was in dominant form for the Bristol Bears after what has been a tough week

Kyle Sinckler was in dominant form for the Bristol Bears after what has been a tough week

Kyle Sinckler was in dominant form for the Bristol Bears after what has been a tough week

Lions Watch 

Anxious time

The weeks ahead are going to be full of tension for Gatland and Co, as they hope to avoid too many injury setbacks involving their chosen men. The scares have already started. On Saturday, Dan Biggar went off after a bang to the head and the Northampton fly-half failed an HIA. Over in Galway, Leinster No 8 Jack Conan limped off in the first half against Connacht.

Record in reach

Sam Simmonds capped a memorable week by touching down twice as Exeter beat Worcester at Sandy Park. The Chiefs No 8 needs two more tries to beat the Premiership record of 17 in a season – set by Dominic Chapman in 1997-98 and matched by Christian Wade in 2016-17.

Brace brace

Two of the players the Lions will hope can provide a cutting edge in South Africa were quick to show their credentials after being named in Gatland’s squad. Louis Rees-Zammit scored two tries for Gloucester and Anthony Watson matched that feat, on behalf of Bath.

Point made

Henry Slade was among the men considered most unlucky to be left out of the Lions squad and he delivered a fitting riposte with a superb, long-range solo try for Exeter which showed off his pace, awareness and ability to kick with his right foot, as well as his stronger left.

Bok of tricks

South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk was outstanding in attack and defence for Sale in their win over Leicester on Friday night. Sharks director of rugby Alex Sanderson said: ‘We just unleash him,’ after the dynamic display by his side’s diminutive talisman. 

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The 28-year-old harnessed his simmering angst to inspire Bristol’s demolition of Bath’s scrum, with one dominant drive in the 50th minute earning a penalty try at The Rec. Having been named Man of the Match, he fought back tears when asked about missing the cut for the South Africa tour, saying: ‘It’s been an emotional week. I just wanted to show everyone how much it means to me.’

That much was evident, just as it was four years ago. Those present were struck by his passion for the Lions, when he talked to the media ahead of his debut in the famous red shirt. He spoke from the heart about his obsessive recollection of behind-the-scenes footage from past tours and how he was left crying in his mum’s kitchen when the Lions lost the decisive second Test to the Springboks back in 2009. His sheer joy at being involved in such an iconic team captivated everyone in the room.

Unfortunately, having made such a positive impact in New Zealand, his trip ended in trouble with the Auckland police, after an early-hours incident in the city centre. It was not serious enough for any action to be taken but he was forced to apologise, as were the irritated Lions hierarchy and it left a blemish which may have been in Gatland’s mind when he considered his tighthead choices this time.

But Sinckler is a good man and an engaging character who has matured, as he showed by not – in his words – ‘throwing my toys out of the pram’ in response to this rejection. He has smoothed some of the old rough edges in the last four years and uses a mentor to regulate and channel his emotions.

Explaining his outlook now, he told BT Sport: ‘Get on with it. Use the anger. I’ve got so much anger inside of me right now. I have to use it in a positive way.’ He has done that once and he must keep doing it. If Sinckler can continue to harness the burning sense of injustice, he will ensure that he is the next cab off the rank if a Lions tighthead is injured or banned – or maybe if the same fate befalls a player from another position and the management contrive to summon him anyway.

Bristol’s director of rugby, Pat Lam, said: ‘If he keeps playing well, you never know what’s going to happen. He could be on the plane but if not, they know where to get the next prop.’

In 2013, Alex Corbisiero was a late call-up to the tour of Australia and went on to play a major role in the Lions series victory over the Wallabies. Ryan Grant and Tom Court were also brought in as prop cover – just as John Hayes and Tim Payne were in 2009. The attrition rate is high – especially in South Africa. Sinckler can still make it out there and earn a shot at the Boks.

Bristol Bears Head Coach Pat Lam is still hopeful of Sinckler making the Lions squad

Bristol Bears Head Coach Pat Lam is still hopeful of Sinckler making the Lions squad

Bristol Bears Head Coach Pat Lam is still hopeful of Sinckler making the Lions squad

Sinckler played in all three matches of the British & Irish Lions' series against New Zealand

Sinckler played in all three matches of the British & Irish Lions' series against New Zealand

Sinckler played in all three matches of the British & Irish Lions’ series against New Zealand

There are encouraging signs that the Lions may be showcased to a mass, terrestrial television audience in the UK, after Sportsmail revealed that Channel 4 are in the running to broadcast their pre-tour encounter against Japan at Murrayfield. 

That sort of exposure would help to promote the concept to people outside of rugby’s traditional catchment areas, which is good news. 

Now there just needs to be more clarity about the attendance arrangements for that fixture in Edinburgh. All 67,000 tickets were sold quickly but, as yet, there has been no guidance from the Scottish authorities on how many of those who think they are going to be there will be allowed to attend. 

Murrayfield is set to host the British & Irish Lions' first ever game against Japan in June

Murrayfield is set to host the British & Irish Lions' first ever game against Japan in June

Murrayfield is set to host the British & Irish Lions’ first ever game against Japan in June

Joe Marler was overlooked for the Lions tour, but the Harlequins prop believes that someone Gatland should be taking to South Africa is a psychologist or counsellor to look after the players’ well-being. 

The 30-year-old opted out of England’s Six Nations campaign due to the need to stay in a Covid bubble and the Lions face the prospect of having to adhere to strict protocols for up to 10 weeks, culminating in a 10-day quarantine period. 

Against that backdrop of stifling restrictions being imposed on the tour party, Marler suggested that specific steps should be taken to protect the mental health of those involved, saying: ‘Maybe it would be worth taking an extra member of staff who is suited in that sphere. I think it would be a very good idea. Lions tours are tough enough, being away from your families, but this one in particular. There have been sports psychologists on tours but they tend to be focused on the performance side – they’re not qualified in the clinical side of things.’

Marler, who has been candid about his own mental health struggles, has made a documentary with Sky on the subject – ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’ – which will be screened on Wednesday. 

England prop Joe Marler opted out of this year's Six Nations because of the Covid bubble

England prop Joe Marler opted out of this year's Six Nations because of the Covid bubble

England prop Joe Marler opted out of this year’s Six Nations because of the Covid bubble

Warren Gatland had to leave out a number of high-profile players in his squad of 37 players

Warren Gatland had to leave out a number of high-profile players in his squad of 37 players

Warren Gatland had to leave out a number of high-profile players in his squad of 37 players