Chris Ashton says Ollie Lawrence ‘perfect replacement’ for Manu Tuilagi

By Sports Desk February 19, 2024

Chris Ashton believes Ollie Lawrence has the physical presence to become the long-term successor to Manu Tuilagi as England’s midfield powerhouse.

For the first time in this Guinness Six Nations, both Lawrence and Tuilagi are available after recovering from respective hip and groin injuries and Steve Borthwick is deciding what role they should play in Saturday’s clash with Scotland.

Owing to their lack of match fitness, former England wing Ashton insists the existing midfield of Fraser Dingwall and Henry Slade needs to be retained with Lawrence included on the bench.

And while the rampaging, if injury-prone, Tuilagi still has a role to play at 32 years old, Ashton feels Lawrence is ready to show he can also punch holes in defences at Test level.

“Ollie seems like a very, very similar to Manu and its taken his move to Bath to realise his full potential in how good he can be,” BBC Rugby Union Daily podcast co-host Ashton told the PA news agency.

“Against Toulouse a few weeks ago he was outstanding. We have yet to see that at England level, but I see Ollie as the perfect replacement for Manu, a really natural fit.

“When Manu’s available you still have to use him because he’s so different, but he’s more of a risk because he hasn’t had any game time.

“He can come off the bench and do 15 or 20 minutes, but that’s a problem in itself because if someone goes down early and Manu’s got to go on, then he’s at real high risk because he’s got to do 60 or 70 minutes.

“Ollie’s less risky just because of his age, the number of injuries he’s had is quite low and he’s played a lot of ruby for Bath this season, so he can get going quickly. I would be leaning towards Ollie on the bench for those factors.”

Dingwall is the most likely to lose out because of the availability of Lawrence and Tuilagi, having produced solid but unspectacular performances against Italy and Wales, and Borthwick could decide a more muscular carrier is needed at inside centre.

But Ashton, who won 44 caps in a distinguished England career lasting from 2010 to 2019, believes he should be retained for the Calcutta Cup showdown at Murrayfield.

“Fraser is a very unselfish player and is the kind of player I would love to play with,” Ashton said.

“You know he’s always going to provide and work hard to get to places that not necessarily everyone would cover. He’s a link player and he’s knows how to combine and provide for everybody else.

“You know that he will provide the right pass or cover your inside shoulder all the time. Every team needs players like him.”

One change forced upon Borthwick will be at scrum-half after Alex Mitchell was ruled out by a knee injury, creating a vacancy for either Danny Care or Ben Spencer to fill.

“It’s a shocker to lose Mitchell because he’s so good. He’s a big loss and it’s not great timing going into these games,” Ashton said.

“Before we all thought he was an attacking nine, but he showed at the World Cup he can do it all and he’s carried on doing that in the Six Nations.

“He’s just such a threat, especially because of the danger he poses near the try-line when he pulls people out of place. You can’t coach the skills Alex has.”

* Chris Ashton is a co-host of the BBC’s ‘Rugby Union Daily’ podcast with new episodes available every morning during Six Nations match weeks.

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