Rugby Union: Life with the Lions no guarantee of success in wooing Woodward

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The Independent Online
It was only a few months ago, shortly after taking his new job, that Clive Woodward praised Fran Cotton's sagacity over the selection of the Lions in South Africa. He promised to capitalise on the experience of the English Lions in rebuilding the team for this season. Things have not worked out quite like this: how are the mighty fallen. The most mighty of all the England contingent were John Bentley and Matt Dawson. Both came into the Test side as replacements for, respectively, the injured Ieuan Evans and Robert Howley. Both had heroic tours. Tim Rodber, though less spectacular than Bentley and Dawson, replaced Scott Quinnell, who also had to come home early, and he did not let anyone down either.

Early in the tour Tim Stimpson was being considered for a Test place, not least because his goal-kicking was beginning to rival that of Neil Jenkins in range and accuracy. Jenkins was rightly preferred in the end. With Scott Gibbs and Jeremy Guscott - and, I would add, Dawson and Bentley as well - he turned out to be among the winners of the series. But Stimpson had improved markedly, and certainly did enough in midweek matches to guarantee his place in any England team.

This was the position before he had a disagreement with Rob Andrew at Newcastle. Bentley has also been in and out of the North-eastern side. I am not apprised of the details, but with Bentley it seems to be a question of a loss of form, whereas with Stimpson it is more a matter of money.

Andrew may be right or wrong. What I question is whether he should be allowed to interrupt, in Stimpson's case, or probably to terminate in Bentley's, the international careers of his players.

The BBC commentator and former Scottish outside-half, Ian Robinson, was saying on the wireless yesterday morning that it would have been madness to pick Stimpson because of his lack of first-team practice. I would maintain that a good player remains a good player, and for national selectors to act otherwise is to place even more arbitrary power in the hands of club coaches or rugby managers, who have quite enough of it as things are.

In addition to Rodber, three other English Lions forwards find themselves on the shelf: Graham Rowntree (who is however, given a place among the substitutes), Mark Regan and Simon Shaw. The last two cannot even get into their club first-choice sides, respectively Bath and Wasps.

I do not feel quite so sympathetic to them as I do to Stimpson, Bentley, Dawson and Rodber. Not only have they lost form this season; they had lost it in South Africa, and appeared to be distinctly lucky Lions.

On his South African performance, Jason Leonard belonged to the same category. But Woodward has now had the sense to move him to his natural position at loose head and give a deserved chance on the other side to Will Green, who had a good game against Brive on Sunday.

Lawrence Dallaglio, by contrast, did not have such a good game - or not, at any rate, at captain. Three times in the second half he threw away a probable three points (for Gareth Rees was in fine form) by opting for the fashionable kick to touch. Roger Uttley said afterwards on television that hindsight was always perfect.

Well, I can assure Uttley that with me it was not hindsight at all. Whenever Dallaglio chose touch, on one occasion imperiously waving the more sensible Rees away, I said: "Wrong decision." If Rees had kicked nine points, Wasps would have beaten Brive by two. This would have been an injustice. I am glad it did not happen. But though I am emotionally uninvolved in any encounter between England and Australia, I hope Dallaglio thinks a little straighter on Saturday.

The other Lions that Woodward has chosen are Mike Catt, Will Greenwood, Kyran Bracken, Martin Johnson, Tony Diprose and Richard Hill. Of these, Bracken and Diprose went to South Africa as replacements and were not really given much of a chance. Catt went out in a similar capacity and ended up as the Test outside-half, where I thought he did well. Woodward has now put him into the centre in what is - in selection anyway - an adventurous back division.

There is, I know, a school of thought which maintains that centre is Catt's proper position. But while Matt Perry has played a lot of his rugby at full-back, Catt has not played centre very often. I tend to echo what people say of frustrated love affairs: if it was meant to happen it would have happened a long time ago.