A View From Below

Sporting debate and opinion

The jekyll and hyde of Lions selection

Paul O'Connell as captain is a good choice from the Lions managementGood and Bad. That would be my assessment of the squad selected for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa for the summer. Ian McGeechan opted for force over flair, with the idea of ‘fronting up’ against the Springbok pack’s front five, where he sees the opposition weakness to be most evident. Whilst Peter De Villiers side aren’t exactly lacking in the second-row, it remains to be seen whether or not C J Van der Linde will start at prop or the coach will continue to punish him for his Irish excursion by replacing him with moving John Smit from hooker to prop – a move which will offer the Lions hope of destroying the Springbok front row.

With this in mind, McGeechan has looked for brute strength in the Lions front-row, and with Gethin Jenkins, Andrew Sheridan and Jerry Flannery, i am confident Britain will triumph in an area we are renowned for developing class players in. Alongside this positive, is the ballsy selection of Munster’s Keith Earls, who anyone has watched for Munster would be happy to embrace. Earls is a new player to many outside Ireland, and without experience at the top-level, may be a risk but may be an inspired choice – similar to the Scot’s decision to take the uncapped Will Greenwood in 1997.

With the captaincy being given to Paul O’Connell (top left) i feel the coaches have pulled a masterstroke. It would have been very difficult not to give the Lions armband to a grand-slam winning captain – Brian O’Driscoll – but this way the Leinster centre can focus on putting in big hits and orchestrating the backs while the Munster man is in a more natural position to lead the forwards – where the focus of the test series surely rests. As much to do with the choice is McGeechan ‘s tendancy to pick a captain whose physical stature dwarfs others – as he has done in the past with Martin Johnson – and in O’Connell you have over 17 stone of Irish beef who stands in at 6 foot 6 inches.
Another decision that should be lauded is the management teams insistence to pick players on form, not reputation. Players on top of their game like Leigh Halfpenny, Riki Flutey, Simon Shaw and Stephen Ferris were all rightly included with Johnny Wilkinson, Ryan Jones and Steve Borthwick deservedly being left out.

England and Leicester's Tom Croft was a startling omissionHowever my bone of contention is with some players who have put in blistering performances recently for club and country and have been unforgivenly overlooked. Tom Croft, of England and Leicester is a fantastic forward who just about every pundit, fan and player would have included in their own Lions squad. He has the pace for the South African hard grounds, offers an extra option in the line out and has the perfect blend of control and aggression to complement the rugged back-rowers David Wallace and Martyn Williams. But the coaches obviously saw something no one else did to feel the need to leave him out of a 37-man squad. I believe an injustice has occured. Delon Armitage, Thom Evans, Ross Ford, Ian Gough and Mike Blair can also feel unlucky not to have made the cut (although Blair still may make the initial squad after Tomas O’Leary’s injury) however the pedigree of their alternatives make the verdicts easier to stomach. Replacements are inevitable in the high-intensity and physical nature of Lions tours and some of these players will get a chance if injuries do occur.

Rugby correspondents have voiced mixed reviews for the announced squad. David Hands highlighted those missing out of the plane whilst Stephen Jones felt the element of suprise was lost in such a foward orientated squad and Stuart Barnes bemoaned the lack of a golden no. 10. Personally, i think the Lions selectors have gone back to basics when naming their British and Irish contingent. Much has been made of the forward battle, the hard grounds of the South African pitches and the high-veldt altitude but not a lot of a theme i believe McGeechan holds as vital as any.

The Lions selectors hope for a happy blend for the touring squadAttitude – and not strictly determined, lights out at 10 and no fun attitude – but the notion that a happy squad of tourists will be able to conjure up the kind of performances needed to win a Lions series.
The likes of Donncha O’Callaghan, Alan Quinlan, Andy Powell and Tommy Bowe will do much to keep the jokes flowing and create an atmosphere around the squad of enjoyment – a feature always likely to be transferred into strong displays on the pitch. I feel the management have got the balance of ‘dirt trackers’ (players for the midweek team) and test starters with the likes of Matthew Rees, Nathan Hines, Joe Worsley, Keith Earls and Ugo Monye all likely to start in the midweek side and have every chance of forcing their way in the first team – a process almost impossible in Woodward’s pre-chosen favourites in 2005’s Kiwi tour.
Overall, any Lions squad is going to be controversial, and the jekyll and hyde nature of some of McGeechan’s decisions are apparent but the more you delve into the Scot’s mindset – it becomes easier to understand the plans that he believes will lead to a test series victory on the African continent.

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April 30, 2009 - Posted by | Rugby Union

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