|Lions selection was easy - half of them aren't good enough
||[Jun. 18th, 2009|01:33 pm]
In the end, for all the talk of 36 players with an equal chance of earning a Test match place, the Lions' selection for the 1st Test against South Africa in Durban on Saturday bore few surprises.
There is a reason for that – nowhere near all 36 players ever had the talent to make the Test side. Thus, it became predictable at least two weeks ago what sort of team the Lions would choose to confront the world champions. Truth is, they had few real class alternatives to the players chosen for the starting XV.
Alun-Wyn Jones has won the lock berth alongside captain Paul O'Connell and Gethin Jenkins has seen off the challenge of Andrew Sheridan on the loose head side of the front row. Ugo Monye's stirring defensive work in midweek against the Southern Kings clinched his place.
Predictably too, Tom Croft wins the blindside flank role for which he was always favourite once the unfortunate Stephen Ferris was forced out of the tour by injury. How Croft can not even have been selected for the original 37-man squad defies belief. That one has to be put down to gross error by the Lions selectors.
Inevitably, too, there is a powerful Celtic core to the team – 11 players from Wales and Ireland are the bedrock, with just four Englishmen. There is not a single Scot in the entire matchday squad of 22, grim confirmation that rugby in Scotland is in serious decline. Nathan Hines and Euan Murray started out with Test aspirations but neither came through. I doubt whether, even without Murray's injury in midweek, he was shooting for anything better than a place on the bench.
The class of 2009 is thinly stretched in terms of resources when it comes to genuine world class talent. The acid test, painful yet always appropriate, is how many would be sure to get into a current World XV ? The brutal answer is one, Brian O'Driscoll.
Yet having accepted the limitations of these Lions and especially those outside the top 15 – the uneven, unconvincing results against many of the below strength provincial sides in the build-up to this 1st Test has merely underlined that truth – there is now a golden opportunity for some of the chosen 15 to kick on and make their names as genuine world class talents.
If this is a team hardly oozing world class, it is undeniably one with a strong bond, a common cause that coach Ian McGeechan and his assistants have worked hard on creating. Now comes the chance for the individuals to make their name.
In 1997, you couldn't pretend the Lions began the Test series with a side stuffed full of legends. Martin Johnson was one, Jeremy Guscott another but not that many others came to mind. But on that tour, myriad players – the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Neil Back and Matt Dawson - seized the opportunity to lift their games to another plateau. That triumph took those players all the way on to a World Cup win with England in 2003.
Similarly, the likes of Paul Wallace, Jeremy Davidson and Tom Smith played some of the finest rugby of their lives in that 3-match Test series. Their ability to lift their game contributed mightily to the overall success of those Lions.
If the 2009 Lions are to have any hope of emulating the success of their 1997 counterparts, a similar number of players must raise their game. The Lions look solid in the front row but I don't buy this theory that Springbok captain John Smit will become putty in Jenkins' hands now that he's switched from hooker to tight head prop. Smit played there earlier in his career and he's squat and solid.
Croft will add a valuable line-out option, not just at the back, and the Welsh halves should have played together enough to feel comfortable and confident. Tommy Bowe is in the form of his life on the right wing. And then there's the great O'Driscoll alongside the rapidly improving Jamie Roberts.
But whatever the position, this Lions side must look ahead with belief. They must work collectively and aspire to great performances. If they do that, who's to say they won't give the Springboks something to think about?