Alan Watkins On Rugby: Woodward's wounded Lions could become as bygone as the Barbarians

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The Independent Online

The rugby year is like the academic year, and starts in the autumn. So articles such as this are more like interim reports than they are proper surveys. Already Wales's Grand Slam, which surprised the bookmakers as much as it did me (for I invested in the Championship merely) is fading, like a ship that has been left behind in a fog.

Some episodes we do remember. We remember the dual spear-tackle on Brian O'Driscoll that put him out of the Lions tour of New Zealand and which, scandalously, went unpunished.

Oddly, perhaps, we do not remember nearly so clearly Lawrence Dallaglio's broken ankle in an earlier match: it may be because the circumstances were less dramatic, and because the injury was not inflicted with malice aforethought. But it is at least arguable that the loss of Dallaglio for the whole trip was at least as crucial as that of O'Driscoll.

Not that the Lions would have won, even with these two. But their performance might have been slightly more inspiring. As things were, the entire tour turned out to be a monument to the vanity and conceit of Sir Clive Woodward. It was not as if he had not been warned. I told him, but he wouldn't listen. I pointed out (and I was by no means alone) that to take two entire squads with, as matters turned out, several extras was the height of folly.

It was essential to start with a Test team but, at the same time, for those outside it to know that they could break into it if their performances justified their promotion. To start with two Test coaches in the Anglo-Saxons Woodward and Andy Robinson, with the Celts Ian McGeechan and Gareth Jenkins being given charge of the midweek no-hopers, was to ask for trouble from the very beginning; and trouble duly arrived.

It did not, however, derive from any obstinacy by Woodward, but from a descent into chaos and confusion. After all, it says something for the principles of selection if the two best of all the back-five forwards, Simon Easterby and Ryan Jones, were not even in the original 44-plus.

It is not as if we had not been here before. Prior to the 1990s, Lions tours were almost always marred by injuries, with scrum-halves being peculiarly and understandably vulnerable. Fran Cotton took 35 to South Africa in 1997: two XVs plus reserves in the "spinal" positions. I would estimate 36 or 37 to be the optimum number.

Woodward's other error was to take on Alastair Campbell as his press officer. Here again, this reflects his vanity and conceit. After his actions in the David Kelly affair, and even before then, Campbell was the best - or, what is not quite the same thing, the best-known - press officer. Accordingly, Woodward had to have him for himself, irrespective of his suitability for the post.

But, to be fair to Woodward, he has never believed in the notion of suitability in this sense. He believes in the transfer of persons with great abilities between one activity and another: hence his conviction that he can become a great football manager. Similarly, he thought that Campbell could perform the same service for the Lions and, incidentally, for Woodward as he had done for the Government and, perhaps less incidentally, for Tony Blair.

Why anyone should have wanted Campbell to do this is a mystery. Far from being brilliantly good at spin, this Government has been outstandingly bad at it. The posed picture of Woodward walking with an apparently mollified Gavin Henson would have attracted as much derision among political editors as it did among rugby correspondents if it had shown Blair walking with a seemingly cheerful Gordon Brown.

There is something else, not necessarily to be laid at Woodward's door. That is the number of injuries sustained on the tour. Henson is only just recovering from injury. Jonny Wilkinson was never fully fit on the tour, and is certainly not fit now. Tom Shanklin, Ryan Jones and Brett Cockbain are all unavailable for Wales.

The Lions tour before this one, to Australia in 2001 under Graham Henry, had its share of injuries too, though many of these may have been as much psychological as physical. Colin Charvis and Ben Cohen are only just recovering, Austin Healey has never been the same, and neither has Iain Balshaw. Perhaps, in the professional age, the time has come for the Lions to go the same way as the Barbarians.