Rugby Union: Back is built for Lions

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The Independent Online
MY LIONS party for New Zealand would be: G Hastings (capt), A Clement; I Evans (vice-capt), S Geoghegan, R Underwood, T Underwood, W Carling, J Guscott, S Gibbs, M Hall; S Barnes, R Andrew, G Armstrong, R Jones; J Probyn, P Burnell, J Leonard, N Popplewell, K Milne, B Moore, M Bayfield, G Llewellyn, N Francis, G Weir, M Teague, E Lewis, D Richards, B Clarke, N Back, L Jones.

The selectors will certainly differ in several respects. Scott Hastings may come in as a replacement for Mike Hall or Scott Gibbs on grounds of dependability and experience, though he has hardly set the Scottish threequarters alight this season. However, in Hastings's area of proven expertise - that is, tackling - Gibbs and Hall have demonstrated they are more than his equal, even though they may not have demonstrated very much else.

Jon Webb still has his supporters, though his hesitant performance (and not only his kicking) at the Recreation Ground on Saturday could hardly have added to their number.

Eric Elwood is coming up fast on the rails, but the Bath match indicated that Rob Andrew was perhaps a more competent all round outside-half than Stuart Barnes. This is, after all, the conclusion to which the selectors have come for many seasons.

Dewi Morris is now the favourite to supplant Robert Jones, though Rupert Moon, depending on Saturday's performance, could turn out to be a late entrant. In some ways there is a case for taking three scrum-halves and seven threequarters, because a scrum- half always seems to be seriously injured early in the tour.

The front row seems a reasonably stable unit, though Ricky Evans or Peter Wright, who had a good season playing out of position, might force himself in.

The locks are the most problematical of all. None of the four in my party is sure of his place; nobody is. It is virtually a matter of perming any four from my quartet with the addition of Mick Galwey, Damian Cronin, Andy Reed, Wade Dooley, Martin Johnson and even Phil Davies.

These doubts derive almost entirely from the lottery which goes by the name of the line- out. I choose Neil Francis because the most enigmatic Irishman since Eamon de Valera (himself a rugby player, a centre) does have a touch of class when he chooses to show it. But I have no confidence that the selectors will share my view.

Still less, I imagine, will they agree with me about the back row. In fact, it is consistent in its imaginative construction. If we are to have one flier in Neil Back, then we must, to preserve a consistent pattern of team play, have another in Lyn Jones, unjustly spurned by the Welsh selectors.

To counterbalance the lack of weight and height at No 7, there is plenty of both at No 6. Moreover, Mike Teague and Emyr Lewis are capable of playing at No 8 (as Lewis is doing on Saturday), while Ben Clarke is being spoken of as a No 6. I am not sure that I would not take Mickey Skinner as an alternative to Lewis or Teague. His abilities as an old thespian ought to secure him honorary membership of the Garrick Club.

No doubt I shall be proved comprehensively wrong. The likeliest open side flankers remain Peter Winterbottom and Iain Morrison, who had trundled around the Richmond Athletic Ground for years before being chosen for Scotland this season and putting up a fine performance at Twickenham.

Nevertheless, Geoff Cooke now appears to have reversed his heightist position on Back. He is restored to the England A side. Yesterday, Cooke was quoted as follows: 'I think I was misquoted on the question of Neil Back's size. In fact, he is taller than Brian Moore, who is a known competitor. Back is now the No 2 open side flanker.'

Well, the original Cooke quotation seemed clear enough to me at the time. He said that it was not the poor lad's fault that he was so small, but that the modern game required tall men in the back row. Consequently my colleague Steve Bale advised Back, not perhaps entirely in jest, to seek his fortune as a hooker. According Cooke's comparison of Back with Moore is not to the point. Back, as it happens, is also as tall as Jeff Probyn and, I should judge, very slightly taller than Jason Leonard.

When Cooke grows tired of rugby coaching and management, he will clearly have a glittering future before him as a politician.