Rugby Union: Jenkins a necessity for the form-book Lions

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The Independent Online
RUGBY HAS developed so quickly in the past few years, not always in the most admirable directions, that the old fireside game of picking best-ever sides has become largely pointless. Indeed, I doubt whether even a Lions side of 1970-75 could in strength and fitness live with their counterparts today. What we can do, however, is select those counterparts. Whether there ever will be another Lions tour is a different question, even though a tour is scheduled.

Players who have not participated in the Five Nations this season are discounted, which leaves us without Allan Bateman, Will Greenwood and Jamie Mayer. But recent form is not the only guide. Past performances are taken into account too, notably of those who participated in the last, triumphant tour of South Africa in 1997. No doubt two years is a long time in rugby. But it is not so long as to turn good players into bad ones, or vice versa.

Then Neil Jenkins was at full-back, from which position (with a little help from Jeremy Guscott, Matt Dawson, Scott Gibbs and others) he won the series. But he does not like playing there. He informed the Welsh selectors accordingly. In the last four months he has had an outstanding season both as a kicker and, more surprisingly to his numerous detractors, as a playmaker.

Equally, there is no doubt that the outstanding outside half - perhaps the outstanding back - of the season was Gregor Townsend. He also is fussy. He does not like playing at outside centre, where he has sometimes been put.

I insist on including Jenkins for his kicking. Nor do I think Jonny Wilkinson an adequate substitute, partly because he is not quite so reliable a kicker, partly because playing him at inside centre, his current England position, would eliminate either Gibbs or John Leslie from the side.

My solution is to leave Jenkins where he is and play Townsend at full- back. From here he has transformed international matches when he has come on as a substitute. He is certainly more than fast enough for a position which has, since the days of Andy Irvine, JPR Williams and Serge Blanco, become the most glamorous on the field. I can only hope he agrees with me and does not do a Jenkins.

As Jenkins' partner I am going for Gary Armstrong, who has had a fine, scrapping season. It is worth remarking that he, Townsend, Leslie and Alan Tait enjoyed the success they did because of accident brought about by the injuries to Bryan Redpath and Duncan Hodge.

In the absence of Bateman and the waning of Guscott, Tait is the natural choice at outside centre. Inside centre is more difficult because Leslie rivalled Townsend and maybe Tait also as back of the season. None the less, I choose Gibbs both because of his tackling and because of his try against England, which the great Bleddyn Williams would have been proud of.

The only wing and, indeed, the only England back who forces himself into the side is Dan Luger. With Wayne Proctor discarded, Nigel Walker retired and Denis Hickie confined to the television studios, sheer speed is in markedly short supply. Justin Bishop promised much, delivered little; Steve Hanley scored a try in his first international but broke a wrist. I am choosing Kenny Logan for his strength and enthusiasm rather than for his erratic kicking, which could and should have won the match against England and given Scotland a Grand Slam.

Locks, in contrast to wing, have been luxuriating. The unsung hero of the Welsh win at Wembley was Chris Wyatt. Alas, such is the press of competition that he does not make either the Test pairing (Martin Johnson and Scott Murray) or the touring party.

The best No 8 was Lawrence Dallaglio, a position he settled down in after oscillating, in the same matches, with Richard Hill at No 6. It is in the later position that I am choosing him and giving the No 8 jersey to Scott Quinnell. This is not wholly justified by Quinnell's form. But he remains a player who, on his day, can inspire colleagues and win matches. The outstanding No 7 was unarguably Martin Leslie.

The Test XV are: G Townsend; D Luger, A Tait, S Gibbs, K Logan; N Jenkins, G Armstrong; T Smith, K Wood, P Wallace, M Johnson, S Murray, L Dallaglio, S Quinnell, M Leslie.

To make up a party of 35 - a luxury justifiably claimed by the manager, Fran Cotton, in South Africa - we are taking an extra player at outside- half, scrum-half, hooker and lock, and in the back row.

The rest of the party are: S Howarth; J Bishop, J Guscott, J Leslie, S Hanley; J Wilkinson, A Thomas, R Howley, K Bracken; J Leonard, R Cockerill, G Jenkins, D Garforth, C Quinnell, J Davidson, T Rodber, C Charvis, E Peters, R Hill, N Back.