Rugby Union: Woodward must beware being tempted by Six appeal

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The Independent Online
TWELVE YEARS ago, five tight forwards from Scotland raised enough of a gallop during a Five Nations Championship won by France that they played themselves on to the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. By the time the Lions left Christchurch after the first of the three Tests, they knew they had the wrong blokes on board. Peter Wright, Kenny Milne, Paul Burnell, Damian Cronin and Andy Reed may have looked the part at Murrayfield, but they cut no ice in the badlands of Waikato.

The Lions are back in All Black territory this summer, and there is every danger that the evidence put forward by the Six Nations version of the annual tournament, which begins with games in Paris and Cardiff tomorrow, will contain a similar number of red herrings. What if Mathew Tait, the 18-year-old newcomer in the England midfield, plays three blinders out of four over the next seven weeks? Would that make him a suitable candidate for active duty against Tana Umaga in Dunedin or Auckland? Happily, the selection process has been refined since the Lions last ventured into silver-ferned territory, and anyway, Sir Clive Woodward and his megabyte team of coaches intend to take 40-odd players rather than the 30 available to Geoff Cooke and Ian McGeechan in 1993. But the forthcoming tournament will inevitably confuse as well as clarify, especially if the bottom falls out of Brian O'Driscoll's game. O'Driscoll is the favourite to lead the Lions, but even captains have been badly chosen. Ciaran Fitzgerald in 1983? Please.

If there are clear areas of strength for the Lions - prop and lock being the most obvious examples - there are areas of weakness too. Unless Steve Thompson, of Northampton, rediscovers the very best of himself between now and the first Test on 25 June, there is no possibility of the Lions fielding a hooker as potent as Keven Mealamu. Can the tourists really hope to neutralise the astonishing Richie McCaw if Jonny O'Connor goes quiet on us? The fact that O'Connor has been dropped by Ireland is not the most reassuring news. And what about the goal-kicking? Jonny Wilkinson will accumulate points if he plays, but will he be fit enough to travel? Come to think of it, will he ever be fit again?

All things being equal, the Six Nations should confirm Woodward in his view that the Lions have an edge in the bruise-and-batter department. Thompson knows what it is to beat the All Blacks - he has done it twice with England, once over there - and the home side will certainly struggle to field a tight-head prop in the same league as either of the English contenders, Julian White and Phil Vickery.

The same applies at lock. Paul O'Connell, Malcolm O'Kelly, Donncha O'Callaghan, Danny Grewcock, Ben Kay, Steve Borthwick, Simon Shaw, Scott Murray... all of them would push hard for a place in the New Zealand engine room. O'Connell is a certainty for the Test team, with O'Kelly his likeliest partner.

It is when we get to the back row that a bottomless pit opens, for McCaw is uniquely equipped to undermine the best opponents. O'Connor looked set to go against him this time last year, then his Achilles snapped in half.

If not O'Connor, who? Denis Leamy may be as good as they say he is in Cork and Limerick, in which case Colin Charvis of Wales will at least have some competition. At half-back, Chris Cusiter, of Scotland, is getting big raps from his specialist coach, Andy Nicol, who very nearly made an unexpected Test appearance for the Lions in Sydney four years ago, even though he was in Australia on the razzle rather than the official squad list. Dwayne Peel, of Llanelli Scarlets, is another possibility, as is Matt Dawson, now he has kissed and made up with the England management following his spat over broadcasting commitments.

If Wilkinson tours, he will play in the Tests. If he stays at home, there will be little to choose between Ronan O'Gara, Stephen Jones and Charlie Hodgson. And the back three, where the All Blacks trio of Mils Muliaina, Doug Howlett and Joe Rokocoko are likely to be five times better than any combination the Lions choose to field? All that can be said for sure is that Jason Robinson will be there somewhere, preferably on the left wing. The rest depends on what we are about to witness in the rugby capitals of Europe.

CHRIS HEWETT'S BRITISH ISLES TEAM (First Test v New Zealand, Christchurch, 25 June): 15 G Thomas (Wal); 14 M Cueto (Eng); 13 B O'Driscoll (Irl, capt); 12 G Henson (Wal); 11 J Robinson (Eng); 10 J Wilkinson (England); 9 C Cusiter (Sco); 1 G Jenkins (Wal); 2 S Thompson (Eng); 3 J White (England); 4 P O'Connell (Irl); 5 M O'Kelly (Irl); 6 M Corry (Eng); 7 C Charvis (Wal); 8 S Taylor (Sco).