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Saracens stars’ Championship experience can help Lions on South Africa tour, says Gregor Townsend

·2-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Gregor Townsend believes Saracens' stint in the Championship can be a positive for the British and Lions in South Africa this summer.

Sarries had five players named in Warren Gatland's 37-man squad – the single largest contingent from any one club – on Thursday despite competing in the second tier of English rugby this season due to salary cap infringements.

That means those players will not have featured in a game of top-tier rugby between the Six Nations, when England slumped to fifth place, and the warm-up fixture against Japan at Murrayfield on June 26 before departing for South Africa.

Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola, Elliot Daly and Jamie George made the tour, but Billy Vunipola missed out.

But Townsend, who is on secondment as assistant coach of the Lions from his day job as Scotland head coach, believes it can help the players get back to their best.

"I do believe it could be a positive, these Saracens guys playing in the Championship," he said. "From my own experience playing a season in the Championship with Northampton, I was full of confidence, getting a lot of ball in hand, taking that onto the international stage.

“These guys look to be playing with ambition, getting a lot of touches, getting match fit. And we're not talking about a group of players who don't know what it's like to play at the highest level.

"I've been studying a lot of Championship rugby with Saracens. You look at players' strength and how they play. What they are showing, is it something we believe will help us win. That makes a persuasive argument."

Daly's selection was the most surprising among the Saracens contingent, not least as he is listed as a centre when Eddie Jones and England have largely viewed him as a full-back in recent years. On the 2017 Lions tour, Daly thrived as a wing, and his versatility and booming left boot helped him secure a spot again this time around.

Owen Farrell is one of five Saracens players included in the 2021 Lions squadGetty Images
Owen Farrell is one of five Saracens players included in the 2021 Lions squadGetty Images

"The way he came off the bench against France [in the Six Nations] showed he'd reacted really well to being dropped," said Townsend. "The way France defend isn't too dissimilar to South Africa, blitz defence, he showed very good footwork.

"Then to see him in the flesh and see what a class player he is on form – confident – really got me excited. I watched him last weekend versus Nottingham and even though he was at full-back, he was second receiver, worked really hard.

“On the back of that, he was a successful Lion and someone who could cover more than one position. As a 13, it could go very well for us. The goal-kicking, the left boot, all the attributes."

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