Rugby Union: Lions need English prowess to avoid touring disasters: The British Isles party for New Zealand is chosen tomorrow. Steve Bale considers the options

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The Independent Online
SET aside for a moment the debate about who should lead the Lions in New Zealand. The real question is far more fundamental to the entire Lions concept: what criterion, excellence or geography, or a mixture of both, do you use to select your tour party?

This is by no means straightforward and we may be certain the selectors who gather in London tomorrow will ponder it as they make their choices before revealing all on Monday.

On the one hand, it seems blindingly obvious. First, to beat the All Blacks and second, to beat everyone else in a three-Test, 13-match programme of breathtaking difficulty which will require no less than the very best that the British Isles have to offer. Stray from the principle of excellence and the Lions will have no chance.

But stick to it and the so-called Celtic fringe would have such a miserly representation that the whole balance of the Lions would be disturbed. It is a geo-political question, if that does not sound too grand: which, ultimately, would bring the Lions into the greater disrepute, being hammered by New Zealand with a genuinely cross-border home-union mix- and-match or beating them with a team packed with Englishmen?

Alas for the Celts, I know what my answer is, and it is distinctly unromantic. If you send anything less than your best squad to New Zealand, you are wilfully courting disaster. The fairly recent experience of 1983, when Ciaran Fitzgerald should not have been on the tour let alone its leader, tells us that all too clearly.

Whatever the arguments between Gavin Hastings and Will Carling for the captaincy or between individual players for individual positions, the fact is that England possess such strength at the top and in depth that they - quite rightly - will have the lion's share of Lions. Defeat by Wales has not altered that; neither, at this short notice, would defeat by Ireland.

You could state a valid case for taking as many as 18 or 19 Englishmen, fringe players such as Philip de Glanville, Martin Johnson and Neil Back being worthy of serious consideration. One or other of them - most probably Back, who would be the first uncapped member of an original Lions tour party since Elgan Rees and Brynmor Williams in 1977 - has every chance of being on the plane from Heathrow on 13 May.

Talk of '77 brings us to the peril inherent in one country's over-representation - and the reason why, even with Geoff Cooke as manager, English numbers may be somewhat circumscribed. Welsh rugby was in its last golden era 16 years ago but even so the 16 Welshmen initially chosen were simply too many.

The tour became divided in consequence and a Lions team good enough to win the series - and within seconds of winning the fourth Test to tie it - lost 3-1. It was a salutary lesson, which will doubtless not be lost on the coach Ian McGeechan (who was on that tour as a player) nor on Cooke and the four national selectors: Derek Morgan (England), Bob Munro (Scotland), Ken Reid (Ireland) and David Richards (Wales).

Things have moved a long way from 1977. In 1989, when the Lions toured Australia, the choice was preponderantly English and Scots, with a leavening of Welshmen in the Test team who took the series 2-1. The Irish, though, were noticeable by their absence from the second and third Tests - and something similar will probably be their lot again. Nor can Wales hope to do any better.

This seems to me to run clean counter to what the Lions ought to be: a joyous bringing-together of the home unions which triumphantly exposes the fallacy that the Lions are near extinction. In which case everyone will have to make do with the idea that in this instance it is England who in effect represent us all. But it is not yet un fait accompli. This championship season has been so full of twists and turns, highs and lows, that Lions selection has constantly fluctuated and is probably destined to do so again once the information provided by today's matches in Dublin and Paris has been assimilated.

For the moment, the entire England XV who play Ireland have a compelling claim - as long as you agree that experience will be of much value as a fresh pair of legs in the relentless world of New Zealand rugby. Despite their occasional travails this season, it is entirely possible that the Lions Test pack will end up English in its entirety.

The captaincy remains the ticklish one, not least because the management is so obviously divided along national lines: McGeechan for Hastings and Cooke for Carling. In terms of results not only now but over five seasons, Carling's case is unarguable, but there is a palpable feeling outside (and to an extent even inside) England that Hastings would be the better man at drawing together the disparate strands that make up the Lions.

Provided they leave the tactical choices to Stuart Barnes, both men have the credentials - though the most convincing argument I have heard for either is that, after so long leading England without the luxury of being an ordinary joe, Carling deserves a break. I therefore give you Gavin Hastings, the heart of my Lions.

----------------------------------------------------------------- STEVE BALE'S CHOICE ----------------------------------------------------------------- FULL-BACKS: A Clement (Wales), G Hastings (Scotland). WINGS: I Evans (Wales), A Stanger (Scotland), R Underwood, T Underwood (England). CENTRES: W Carling (England), N Davies (Wales), J Guscott (England), S Hastings (Scotland). OUTSIDE-HALVES: R Andrew, S Barnes (England). SCRUM-HALVES: G Armstrong (Scotland), D Morris (England). PROPS: P Burnell (Scotland), J Leonard (England), N Popplewell (Ireland), J Probyn (England). HOOKERS: K Milne (Scotland), B Moore (England). LOCKS: M Bayfield, W Dooley (England), G Llewellyn (Wales), A Reed (Scotland). FLANKERS: N Back (Leicester), P O'Hara (Ireland), M Teague, P Winterbottom (England). No 8s: B Clarke, D Richards (England). -----------------------------------------------------------------