Rugby Union: Webb has Lions in his sights

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STRANGE, the things you can pick up on a train. Travelling back from Bath to London last Saturday, and in the company of two eminent members of the Rugby Football Union, there was unanimity on two topics. That Rory Underwood would be back on England's wing before the year was out, and that the name of Jonathan Webb would be one of the first on the selectors' list for the Lions' tour to New Zealand next summer.

Underwood's decision to come out of retirement almost before he had gone into it is no more surprising than David Sole's contention that shamateurism is now rife throughout the country. Only the most pig-headed would contest such a claim, but having put the can of worms on the shelf, Sole has no intention of opening it. Unless there is a budding Taggart within the Scottish Rugby Union, they will be no more successful in unmasking the culprits than their counterparts in England and Wales. But back to Underwood.

Even before the first course had been served at the farewell dinner given by Leicester in his honour at the end of last season his England colleagues were predicting that Underwood would be in the side to play the Springboks. An officer and a gentleman, he has been as good as their word. There are few more exhilarating sights in rugby than Underwood in full cry, and his return to the international game will add considerably to England's strike force, while strengthening the hand of the Lions selectors.

Assuming his availability and fitness, the name of Jonathan Webb must already be pencilled in for the tour. His performance against Harlequins last weekend was a timely reminder that the new laws have in no way devalued the importance of the goal-kicker. Of the international full-backs in the four home countries, Webb is unquestionably the most accurate. Gavin Hastings was indispensable to the Lions in their series victory over the Australians three years ago, and in the estimation of many would be the first choice full-back for the 1993 Lions in New Zealand. On his day, Hastings can kick goals from almost anywhere on the field, but when it is not his day, and there are more of them than there used to be, he can also miss from anywhere on the field. Above everything else, the Lions will want consistency and reliability from their goal-kickers.

In 1971, JPR Williams was undeniably the finest full-back in the world. But had Barry John not emerged, to almost universal disbelief, as a frontline goal-kicker on the Lions tour to New Zealand, there is little doubt that Williams would have been sacrificed in order to accommodate Bob Hiller, whose seven goals out of the cloying mud against West Coast / Buller, most of them from the touchline, remain, along with Simon Hodgkinson's goal-kicking at Parc des Princes three seasons ago, amongst the finest examples of the art I have ever seen.

Ian Hunter, the Northampton full-back, is not dissimilar in style to Williams and plays with the same muscular authority, but like the Welshman he has no track record as a kicker of goals. The same is true of the talented Welshman Tony Clement and of the Irishman Jim Staples, although all of them have qualities well suited to conditions in New Zealand. Hunter and Clement also have the advantage of being versatile enough to play in more than one position. An early opportunity to assess at least one of the contenders against top-class opposition may come when the Barbarians play the Wallabies at Twickenham in November, although the temptation to field a possible Lions XV is one that will be strenuously resisted by the Barbarians selectors. The indignities suffered by a BaaBaas side of Lions strength against the Fijians in 1970 have not been forgotten. Several reputations were irreparably damaged that day and the Lions selectors were forced to make a hasty reappraisal of their touring party for New Zealand. It is one thing for the Barbarians to reunite a Lions side after a tour, as they have done on a number of memorable occasions. It is an entirely different matter putting out a scratch side against thoroughly prepared tourists who also happen to be world champions. The Australians apart, the Barbarians selectors have the world at their disposal and fully intend to make the most of it. But, first of all, they will want a decent goal-kicker.