You underestimate Jack Nowell at your peril, as many international defence coaches will readily concede. The nuggety Cornishman is not the biggest wing on the block, nor the fastest – but he is in the 2017 Lions squad to take on the All Blacks on merit.
He has been an integral part of Exeter Chiefs’ spectacular Premiership advance, and is one of the sharpest, most gutsy, and industrious wingers in the international arena.
It explains why Nowell has notched ten tries in his 22 England appearances since making his debut just over three years ago, and underneath the laid-back character, who loves nothing more than getting to grips with his next Lego ‘build’, is a truly fierce competitor.
The easy-going side of Nowell was to the fore when the latest Lions tour party to New Zealand gathered earlier this week at Syon House, the Duke of Northumberland’s south-west London residence, for a first get together involving kit, photos and a chance to meet the coaches – and the press.
He fielded all the early questions about his reaction to being selected for the most famous touring side on the planet with aplomb. Nowell’s description of watching on TV, surrounded by his Chiefs team-mates, without any prior knowledge captured the excitement, especially as he is the first Exeter player to win Lions selection who has come through their academy.
“It was pretty mental – everyone thinks you get an email or phone call before, but that’s actually how I found out. I was on the edge of my seat and then it got to George North, and I knew my name would be read out next, or not at all. And thankfully it was.”
After that the usual boxes were ticked with the avalanche of congratulations heading Nowell’s way from England head coach Eddie Jones, Exeter boss Rob Baxter, family, friends, all his old coaches, and “people popping out of the woodwork you haven’t heard from for a while”.
Then there was his recollection of being a star-struck eight-year-old playing mini rugby at Penzance & Newlyn watching Jason Robinson score his brilliant solo try to launch the Lions to victory in Brisbane in the first Test of the 2001 tour. Last, there is the stock-in-trade about how tough and physical it will be taking on the All Blacks.
However, when the questions move towards his tour ambitions, notably his desire to be a Lions Test starter rather than a dirt-tracker – as Eddie Jones has demanded of his England contingent – the chilled-out Nowell disappears momentarily. The new persona is more flinty, and the warmth fades.
“Every player knows it is being a Test Lion that counts. At the moment the main thing is to get on that plane. The stuff you showed during the Six Nations, and for your club, has done enough for you to get on the plane. The next step is for the players to push each other on.”
His call to arms continues: “We are going to have a few sessions before (we go), and when we are out there. We are one squad going out there. It is important that we remember that – but it is all about those three Tests.”
Josh Lewsey and Mark Cueto are two renowned England wingers who know all about the rigours of touring New Zealand with the Lions, as both were part of the ill-fated last tour there in 2005, when Sir Clive Woodward’s team were whitewashed.
However, both told The Rugby Paper they are convinced that Nowell has what it takes to become a starter in a 2017 Lions Test line-up that is capable of causing an upset against the All Blacks.
Lewsey knows Lions coach Warren Gatland well, with the 2003 World Cup winner having played for the Wasps side that Gatland took to a European Cup and three Premiership titles from 2002 to 2005. Lewsey says Gatland has a very clear strategy of how to beat New Zealand, and that he likes men who respond to the creed that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. He says Nowell, right, fits the description.
“Warren favours players who can rise to the big occasion. On big occasions with Exeter, and England, Jack Nowell steps it up and brings an extra edge. He’s one of those players who, when you throw them in, instead of shrinking back they thrive on it.”
Lewsey’s appraisal continues: “You very rarely see Jack make mistakes because his basics are very strong – and the higher the level you play at the more solid those basics need to be.”
He adds: “Nowell is a really competitive individual, and what I like about the back three players the Lions have picked is that, like Jack and Elliot Daly, you have all-round footballers who can really challenge New Zealand. It’s an interesting blend because you also have players like George North who have stepped up on the biggest stages to have match-winning performances, as he did against Australia for the Lions four years ago.”
Cueto is even more effusive in support of Nowell, whom the 2007 World Cup finalist identifies with closely. “Jack would be my first name on the England team sheet, and it would be the same for the Lions.”
He considers that Eddie Jones’ decision to put Nowell on the England bench with a Grand Slam at stake against Ireland in the last round of the Six Nations was a mistake. “I was very surprised. You knew there would be no space in Dublin with Ireland shutting England down, and that was tailor-made for Jack because he would come off his wing and look for work, and find gaps.”
Cueto says: “I love him as a player – I see something of myself in him. People say he’s not big enough or fast enough. There’s no substitute for raw pace, but it grates on me because Jack is quick. If you haven’t got the pace at Premiership level, let alone international level, you get found out. And he’s never been found out.”
Nowell steals a march on his rivals because of the quality of his skills, footwork, anticipation and work-rate according to Cueto.
“In my day you had a lot of really fast wingers like Tom Varndell, Ugo Monye and David Strettle, who were similar to how Anthony Watson and Jonny May are now. But Jack’s all-round game is at a different level to a lot of the fast guys.”
He adds: “You work on your basics all the time – catching, kicking, defence. But there’s something extra Jack has in common with all the great wings. It’s that knack of being in the right place at the right time, that natural instinct of being in the right spot.”
Cueto says that Nowell was in his Lions starting back three after the Six Nations, and with the start of tour only a fortnight away he is still there.
“My choice is Stuart Hogg at full-back after a fantastic season. Liam Williams, who has been a stand-out for Wales, is on one wing, and Jack Nowell on the other. George North showed glimpses of his old Lions form but has not been at that level for the last year, while Anthony Watson has been hot and cold for England – whereas Jack was the pick of the England back three.”
The other measure of Nowell was his individual duel with the Ulster’s All Black wing Charles Piutau during Exeter’s European Cup pool match victory at Sandy Park over the PRO12 side. In my view the epic cut-and-thrust between them was one of the highlights of the season.
Piutau is a gifted young player, and one who New Zealand coach Steve Hansen definitely did not want to lose to Europe.
Piutau had 16 All Black caps before he left, and would probably have double that now had he stayed. Instead, his talent has thrilled crowds in the north, first for Wasps and now Ulster.
However, when he met Nowell the Cornishman gave every bit as much as he got. Nowell describes the joust with Piutau as, “a bit of a one-on-one”. He adds: “It was good. You always learn when you play against players like that. The only thing that is going to do is make you better.”
Nowell shows his Kiwi opponent respect, but there is nothing star-struck about him these days. Furthermore, like the Irish players in the 2017 Lions squad, he knows what beating New Zealand is like.
He did so as part of the 2013 England U20 side that became the first winners of the Junior World Championship, beating a New Zealand side captained by the current All Black openside, Ardie Savea, in the semi-finals.
Nowell knows they will not be playing anything superhuman this summer, and the Lions coaches – along with former Lions like Lewsey and Cueto – know the confidence that breeds is crucial to success.30