Rugby Union: Johnson is not so much a physical statement as a walking provocation

Click to follow
The Lions party have had mixed notices. On the whole they have been bad rather than good. The main criticisms have been that the squad lacks reliable kickers (both line and goal-kickers) and that Martin Johnson is something of a gamble as captain.

Two weeks ago I picked my own party. There was no attempt to forecast the selection that was to be made by Fran Cotton, Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer. In the official party, in come John Bentley, Nick Beal, Will Greenwood, Paul Grayson, Matt Dawson, David Young, Peter Clohessy, Tom Smith, Barry Williams, Doddie Weir and Neil Back.

They replace, from my party, Jim Staples, Jon Sleightholme, Denis Hickie, Mike Catt, Jonathan Davies, Gary Armstrong, John Davies, Darren Garforth, Richard Cockerill, Craig Quinnell and Colin Charvis.

The comparison cannot be exact because Cotton and his colleagues are filling the positions slightly differently. They are taking 16 backs and 19 forwards to my respective allocations of 17 and 18. I also wanted three full-backs and three outside-halves. They are taking two in both these positions, with Alan Tait dubbed a "utility back". Why, I should like to know, is Tait considered more of a utility back than Gregor Townsend, who can play both centre and outside-half, or Beal, who has played much of his rugby as a full-back rather than as a wing, the position in which he has been selected?

This brings me to the Northampton question. Grayson was in my party as a replacement for Neil Jenkins if the latter's broken arm failed to mend in time. But as Jenkins is fit enough to make the trip, there is surely a stronger case for taking Jonathan Davies or Catt, or preferably both of them.

Beal is a very lucky young man to be chosen before Adedayo Adebayo, Sleightholme, Hickey or Ken Logan, to name but a few. Dawson is even luckier to be preferred to Brian Redpath, Kyran Bracken or Andy Gomersall (for it is doubtful whether my own third scrum-half, Armstrong, would have wanted to make the expedition). For sheer favouritism, there has been nothing like it since the Newport threequarters David Burcher and Gareth Evans were chosen to go to New Zealand with the 1977 Lions.

I feel happier about the forwards. Here Cotton and friends have shown some imagination. The choice of Williams is one example. I am sorry that Garforth is not in the squad but pleased that Clohessy is included. I did not even realise he was available. Whether he will frighten Brother Boer as much as he evidently does the gentler inhabitants of these islands is another question entirely.

Indeed, there must be doubts about Cotton's entire policy of, in the late Carwyn James' phrase, getting his retaliation in first - or the more so because he has trumpeted his intentions noisily in advance. It is not wise to announce your plan of action. It is even less wise to appear to be making physical threats against your opponents. A period of silence on Cotton's part would now be welcome.

However, as he is putting such a premium on physique, it is curious that he has not been able to find room for Craig Quinnell and Charvis. Quinnell, though in the original squad of 62, was always an outside chance on account of his deficiencies in the lineout. But Charvis, who was not among the preliminary group, had done enough for Wales to make a reasonable case for himself.

In the event Cotton has not taken someone like Ben Clarke, but Neil Back, who is too small to commend himself to Jack Rowell. To be fair to Rowell, Back has tended to disappear on those few occasions when he has been given an international chance. But I think he will frighten the referees more than he will the South African players.

It has also been said that by choosing Johnson as captain, Cotton is "making a statement" about the physical approach of the team. Again, I do not think this is wise, not only for the reason I have already given but because a lineout forward has, or ought to have, other things on his mind than tactical considerations. Johnson himself is not so much a physical statement as a walking provocation. Ieuan Evans, who is still - alas! - the best right wing in the four home nations, would be a much better choice.

For once, however, the centres are of high quality. Indeed, the five of them (including Tait) are stronger than the contingent that went to South Africa in 1974. But I doubt whether this superiority will prove enough to pull off the series.