Rugby Union: Lions' weakness is already an open secret

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SO WHO is your player of the Five Nations Championship? Philippe Saint-Andre, perhaps, or 'Jeff' Tordo or any Frenchman between numbers four and seven? You would struggle to find a home-based player who would qualify for the title. It is indicative of a poor championship series that, just as no home country has been able to dominate, so no individual has risen above the rest.

Several have played one, or in Eric Elwood's case, two good games, but none has been able to sustain his level of performance over the whole championship. Excitement has come from the unpredictability of the results rather than the quality of the play.

Instead it has been the season of the whinger. We have listened all week to the Irish bleating about what they consider to be a paltry representation in the Lions party to tour New Zealand. We have been subjected to the festering discontent of players out of favour with their national selectors, and to the querulous rantings of all who dislike the new laws.

I hope that when the International Board meet next month they will have the courage of their convictions to ratify the experimental laws which ultimately will take us, kicking and screaming no doubt, to higher levels of achievement. Just how well they can be made to work I hope to see in New Zealand this summer. If not, then I will admit defeat.

As for the Irish, they are protesting too much. Two victories after 11 thumping defeats in a row have not turned them into world- beaters. The point has been well made but if there have been any mistakes in selection, the fault lies not with the Lions but with the Irish themselves, who discovered their winning formula too late.

The history of Lions tours is littered with purblind selections made on the strength of one or two good performances during the international championship. To have taken Elwood ahead of either Rob Andrew or Stuart Barnes would have been a dereliction of the selectors' duty to two players who have consistently performed to a far higher standard than Elwood has so far achieved.

There have been enough bizarre selections as it is. The choice of Mick Galwey on the blind-side flank is as hard to fathom as is that of Richard Webster on the open side. Webster has much to commend him as a versatile back-row forward but nothing he has done this season has confirmed him as a genuine open side.

The wretchedly unfortunate Neil Back, Iain Morrison or, if ballast is so beautiful in the selectors' eyes, Steve Ojomoh, had stronger claims to the position. And if Peter Winterbottom does not come up to scratch, the Lions could be exposed in an area where the All Blacks are traditionally strong.

When Stuart Lane's Lions career finished some 50 seconds after it had begun in South Africa in 1980 and the selectors failed to come up with an adequate replacement for the fastest forward in the touring party, Rob Louw, playing in a beaten pack, was handed the freedom of the international field.

Louw's pace was the difference between control and hysteria on that tour, and it could happen again, especially as the new laws have so reduced the importance of the scrummage that the Lions may no longer be able to apply the same restraining influence over the opposition's loose forwards.

By the composition of the forwards and from the selection of the scrum-halves, it appears that the tourists are anticipating more damp than dry. Perhaps the selectors have received early warning that the New Zealand winter of 1993 will be as gruesomely dismal - but not, one hopes, as unremittingly discontented as that of 1977 - when it rained incessantly. It would certainly help to explain some of the selections.

The choice of Galwey on the blind-side must be a risk, but no more perhaps than the one Carwyn James took in 1971 when he converted Derek Quinnell, a lock-cum-No 8, to the flank for the third Test with the brief to stop Sid Going, which the Welshman did with such relish that, after 20 minutes, Going was well and truly gone.

Galwey also comes with the reputation of being something of a character, a description which applied to his predecessors and compatriots Sean Lynch and Moss Keane. Still, no touring party would be complete without at least one.

It is a long time since a Lions party left with so many doubts over the ability and staying power of the forwards. Will those hearts of English oak, Winterbottom, Moore, Dooley, Teague and Richards, beat to the same lively tune as they did on previous tours? Can it really be that the Lions, like England, will throw Martin Bayfield to the wolves at the front of the line-out? It looks very much like it, otherwise Damien Cronin will be the only recognised front jumper in the party unless Galwey is given a roving commission.

There have been fewer problems in the backs, where, for the most part, the Lions were selecting from strength. The omission of Robert Jones as the other scrum- half along with Gary Armstrong is the most controversial decision made by the selectors and one which, I believe, is a mistake.

Despite Dewi Morris's many gifts, his mental and physical durability, and his undoubted value as a tourist, having two players so similar in style could seriously limit the Lions' tactical options. But the threequarters are as talented a group as any of their predecessors, and with Ian Hunter and Tony Clement there will be sufficient cover on the wing, at fly-half, and for Gavin Hastings at full-back should he require it.

There is, however, a danger that the Lions captain could be overplayed. Along with Rob Andrew he is the only front-line goal-kicker in the party, albeit with a useful back-up in Barnes.

But Hastings will be a popular captain. His speech at the dinner following the Calcutta Cup match was gracious, generous and genuine, qualities which will go down well in New Zealand.