Rugby Union: Few fliers bound for tour plane

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The Independent Online
THE MATCH at Dublin did not make as much difference to the Lions party as most of us thought. Beforehand, Nick Popplewell was the only Irishman unanimously chosen by the pundits, though some flirted with Simon Geoghegan, Neil Francis and Pat O'Hara.

Afterwards the lists were being hurriedly rewritten, with three or four more forwards and Eric Elwood coming into contention. In the event we need not have bothered. Mick Galwey was the only Irishman to force himself into the party, and in the unfamiliar position of No 6. He is clearly a broth of a boy, and a good player to have around when the going gets rough. But he is no flier in what is already a stodgy back row, however you permute any three from the six.

The only genuine open-side flanker is Peter Winterbottom, and he has always relished working at close contact more than moving around at any great speed. Richard Webster, whose selection was widely leaked, is really a No 6.

Iain Morrison can count himself unlucky, as can Denis McBride, not to mention Neil Back. The New Zealanders have usually believed in playing one flier on the flank. It may turn out to be a mistake not to have taken at least one genuinely fast wing forward.

The same line of reasoning applies to Dewi Morris as second-choice scrum-half. Running scrum- halves such as he have rarely prospered in New Zealand. They are quickly flattened. True, Gary Armstrong is of this type as well but he was an automatic choice. It might have been wise to take a different type of player in Robert Jones, who remains a performer of world class, though he had a wretched time this season behind the Welsh pack.

But then, so did Morris on Saturday behind the English pack. The Irish neutralised the importance of the line-out by pretending it did not exist. They simply charged through. Poor Martin Bayfield's efforts were unavailing.

Bayfield was the sole unanimous choice among the pundits. Damian Cronin and Andy Reed can count themselves lucky; while Gareth Llewellyn and Doddie Weir must wonder what they have to do to win selection to a touring party.

Wade Dooley, by contrast, must - if he is self-critical - marvel that he is on the trip at all. No doubt he is a reassuring presence, but size is no longer so important in New Zealand as it once was. Since the 1950s, our forwards have outgrown theirs. Dooley has had a poor season, and is none too quick on his pins.

Jeff Probyn, on the other hand, did everything that was asked of him, and popped up in several unexpected places. If the selectors had adopted a thorough ageist policy, omitting Probyn, Dooley and even Winterbottom, that would have been understandable. As it is, Probyn alone has been consigned to the old folks' home.

To be fair, however, Peter Wright has had a fine season playing out of position at loose head. It is odd that he was not mentioned more often, whether as an alternative to Paul Burnell or Jason Leonard. The latter has made a good and brave recovery from a nasty neck operation but at 24 he should surely try to put himself about a little more.

This is not a criticism that can be made of Brian Moore or Kenny Milne or, for that matter, Popplewell. Yet it is a defect of the forwards that they are too slow - a failing which the return of Dean Richards, a reassuring presence, will do nothing to remedy.

It is not a criticism that can be made of the backs. We knew about the Underwoods, but Ieuan Evans showed unexpected pace this season. Ian Hunter is not the fastest wing in the world but he did everything that England could have expected of him, and was unlucky to be dropped. Along with Tony Clement, his selection means the Lions have two utility backs.

I am glad that Gavin Hastings is captain. He is naturally well-mannered and outgoing.

Jeremy Guscott and Scott Hastings can play on the wing but what a pity that no one else can play scrum-half. Mark my words, they will be sending for Robert Jones before the tour is finished.

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