Heebie-jeebies and the case for Thomas

RUGBY UNION: Manager Fran Cotton will announce his party for the Lions tour of South Africa a week today. Chris Hewett considers the options, selects his own squad and analyses the contenders for the No 10 jersey
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The presidential brow had been furrowed for days, the autocratic spirit sapped by the intolerably heavy burden of high office. What to do? Finally, Dr Louis Luyt, self-appointed grandee of Springbok rugby, took a deep breath and passed judgement. From now on, his beloved Transvaal would be known as the Gauteng Lions.

"One of the hardest decisions of my life," said the good doctor of his uncharacteristic flirtation with the forces of political correctness. He should worry. Compared to the issues confronting the management of the real Lions over the next week, Luyt's little predicament was nothing more than a gentle head-scratcher before sundown.

Next Wednesday, Fran Cotton, manager of the 1997 Lions, will unveil a 35-strong squad for this summer's three-Test tour of South Africa. Given that the savage demands of the 13-match itinerary would have tested the strength and application of the greatest of all British Isles parties - the unbeaten 1974 vintage of which Cotton himself was a valued member - it is asking the earth of a more commonplace crop to successfully restore some swagger to northern hemisphere rugby.

Especially as the selectors are faced not only by a shortage of high- class prop forwards and a choice of the Hobson variety at outside-half, but also with a goalkicking crisis waiting to happen. Injuries sustained during an exciting, but undeniably flawed, Five Nations Championship still threaten to disrupt the party before it gets to Heathrow, let alone Johannesburg. Oh, and there is no outstanding captaincy candidate, either. Do not expect a sympathy card from this neck of the woods, Dr Luyt.

Twenty-three years ago, the Lions kicked South African backsides from the Cape to the veldt and all the way back again. They fielded the greatest pack in the whole history of British rugby, possessed a heavenly half- back pairing in Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett and, when they became bored with the bludgeon, were able to call on rapiers like Andy Irvine and the famously initialled Williamses - JJ and JPR - to apply whatever coup de grace was needed. Only the centres, Dick Milliken and a certain Ian McGeechan, were considered mere craftsmen rather than celestial beings from the Planet Triumph.

McGeechan is now coaching his third Lions party and it is intriguing that, on this occasion, the greatest concentration of world-class talent is to be found in the centre. Indeed, the selectors can afford to use Jeremy Guscott's unique gifts on the wing and therefore maximise the quality of their midfield by including Will Greenwood, the best uncapped player in English rugby, alongside Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs and Alan Tait.

The idea will infuriate Guscott, but his sublime performance as a replacement wing against Wales in the last round of Five Nations matches should concentrate the minds of Cotton, McGeechan and Jim Telfer when they come to draw up their final list. Left-wing options are limited in the extreme and it makes far more sense to field two class centres, plus Guscott, rather than put an unnecessary squeeze on the available talent by fielding a journeyman for the sake of positional convention.

However, to make all this work, the Lions will need a genuine play-making, string-pulling puppeteer at outside-half. Um. As Cotton freely admitted less than a fortnight ago, the position has given him the heebie-jeebies ever since he took on the responsibility of management. None of the obvious contenders can boast all the right credentials: Mike Catt and Gregor Townsend are able to break a game, but their tactical kicking can be lamentable, while Paul Grayson, who kicks like a mule, is only truly happy when his donkeys are winning the war up there in the front line.

Which makes it doubly surprising that Arwel Thomas, the most natural stand-off in Britain, has been all but ignored. Too frail, say his critics, conveniently forgetting that neither Bennett nor Barry John were ideally equipped to kick sand in the faces of rampaging southern hemisphere nasties. Too erratic, say the knockers. More erratic than Catt or Townsend? Come off it. It may be too late for the selectors to invest in magic rather than muscle, but hope springs eternal.

The pack contingent is generally less contentious, especially as the priceless Jason Leonard can play on both sides of the front row. Doddie Weir's spectacular progress during the Five Nations ensures a decent hand of boilerhouse sweaties - Tim Rodber's line-out prowess gives the Lions extra insurance in that position - while the emergence of Eric Miller, Richard Hill and Colin Charvis gives the back row plenty of youthful vim and vigour.

Which leaves two issues: goalkicking and leadership. Neil Jenkins has a puncher's chance, if that is not too flippant a description, of recovering from his serious arm injury in time to make the trip and, if he declares himself available, Cotton and company will fall to their knees in thanksgiving. If he misses out, Grayson and Jonathan Davies might expect to share the marksmanship duties.

Cotton's hard-headed assertion that there would be no room for sentiment in his deliberations over the captaincy should not undermine the claims of Ieuan Evans.

Retirement may be beckoning but Evans remains an automatic Test choice and while Martin Johnson, the taciturn front-jumper from Leicester, remains a short-priced favourite for the plum job, the engagingly communicative one-club wing from Llanelli has far more experience of life in the media Big Top.

Besides, a Welsh captain would be a clever call. Self-respecting Celts can stand only so much English influence...

CHRIS HEWETT'S LIONS PARTY

Full-backs

Neil Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales), Tim Stimpson (Newcastle and England)

Wings

Adedayo Adebayo (Bath and England), Ieuan Evans (Llanelli and Wales, capt), Jeremy Guscott (Bath and England), Jon Sleightholme (Bath and England).

Centres

Allan Bateman (Richmond and Wales), Scott Gibbs (Swansea and Wales), Will Greenwood (Leicester), Alan Tait (Newcastle and Scotland).

Outside-halves

Mike Catt (Bath and England), Arwel Thomas (Swansea and Wales), Gregor Townsend (Northampton and Scotland).

Scrum-halves

Kyran Bracken (Saracens and England), Austin Healey (Leicester and England), Rob Howley (Cardiff and Wales).

Loose-head props

Jason Leonard (Harlequins and England, vice-capt), Graham Rowntree (Leicester and England).

Hookers

Phil Greening (Gloucester and England), Mark Regan (Bristol and England), Keith Wood (Harlequins and Ireland).

Tight-head props

Peter Clohessy (Queensland and Ireland), John Davies (Neath and Wales), David Young (Cardiff and Wales).

Second rows

Jeremy Davidson (London Irish and Ireland), Martin Johnson (Leicester and England), Simon Shaw (Bristol and England), Doddie Weir (Newcastle and Scotland).

Blind-side flankers

Lawrence Dallaglio (Wasps and England), Rob Wainwright (Watsonians and Scotland).

No 8s

Eric Miller (Leicester and Ireland), Scott Quinnell (Richmond and Wales), Tim Rodber (Northampton and England).

Open-side flankers

Colin Charvis (Swansea and Wales), Richard Hill (Saracens and England).

Mike Catt

(England, 21 caps)

A secure, error-free performance against Wales a week-and-a-half ago re-established Catt's credibility as an outside-half at the top level. The Lions could use his brilliance in broken field and his ability to play centre and full-back virtually ensures his presence on tour. He can kick goals, too, although he is yet to win a pressure game with his right boot.

Jonathan Davies

(Wales, 32 caps)

Only a couple of years ago, Davies would have been the answer to Fran Cotton's prayers. He could do the lot: kick, run, tackle, organise, stand on his head or levitate, depending on the demands of the situation. It is not that he can no longer play - his efforts in adversity against England were wholly admirable - but the old acceleration has gone for good.

Paul Grayson

(England, 9 caps)

Ian McGeechan's goalkicking stand-off at Northampton, Grayson is perfectly equipped to play a tight, structured game within narrow and very specific parameters. However, the Springboks are likely to pose very different problems to those Grayson habitually encounters in the Five Nations and there is nothing to suggest that a limited game plan will work in South Africa.

Arwel Thomas

(Wales, 10 caps)

Rumour has it that Thomas was not even sent an availability form by the Lions selectors and if that is true, he has every right to be narked. A brilliant performance under the greatest imaginable pressure at Murrayfield in January was proof of a rich talent at work and there were further flashes of vision in the match with France in Paris. A natural kicker, too. Think again, Fran.

Gregor Townsend

(Scotland, 25 caps)

A rough Five Nations should not disguise the fact that Townsend remains one of British rugby's most precious possessions. Many of his more ludicrous excesses during the 1997 championship were the direct result of the mediocrity around him. Rightly or wrongly, Townsend felt honour bound to try something, anything, out of the ordinary. Too good to ignore.

Comments