Alan Watkins: Woodward knows the Welsh have a Lions role to play

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The Independent Online

Long ago, Wales made a habit of having a good season in what was then the Five Nations' Championship immediately before the start of a Lions tour. The result was that there was a healthy representation of my fellow countrymen on every trip. Sometimes they flattered to deceive, as the racing correspondents used to put it. Thus on the unhappy 1977 tour of New Zealand there were several players from Wales who were lucky to be in the national side at all, let alone in a team supposed to be representing the four home countries.

Twenty years later, by contrast, when Wales were not going through a specially glorious period, the Lions' series win in South Africa owed as much to two of their players - Neil Jenkins and Scott Gibbs - as it did to anyone. Indeed, if South Africa had possessed the luck to have the still undervalued Jenkins in their side, or the wit to pick Joel Stransky as their place-kicker instead of Henry Honiball, they would almost certainly have won the series themselves.

Four years after that, in Australia, players from Wales did not flourish under Graham Henry, their national coach, now returned to his native New Zealand to be head coach there. Jenkins was relegated, Gibbs was a reluctant late addition to the party and Colin Charvis became thoroughly discontented. But then, several players from other countries found themselves in the same sad condition. It is a wonder that Matt Dawson and Ben Cohen, though not Austin Healey or Iain Balshaw, survived their experiences under Henry and lived to tell the tale.

The players' experiences under Clive Woodward, the Lions' head coach in New Zealand in 2005, are hardly likely to be so disagreeable. They could scarcely be more so. He will almost certainly ensure that his charges enjoy the best of everything, from a battalion of physiotherapists and suchlike to a resident psychiatrist and even, perhaps, a tame barrister such as he had on hand during the World Cup. And - what is often forgotten - he is a Lion himself, having won caps against South Africa in 1980.

Last week I suggested he might not be such a bright choice for the top job as he might have appeared, because England no longer enjoy quite the position of predominance which they occupied immediately after winning the World Cup.

But he is unlikely to exhibit any sentimentality about England players. If anything, his faults are the other way. For instance, he treated Neil Back, who had done the state some service in his time, as if he were the Victorian housemaid of popular social history. And, in the Six Nations' Championship, he paid the price for fielding a back row consisting of three No 6s.

One of the consequences of professionalism is that coaches rarely see matches involving clubs from outside their national territory. Accordingly, Woodward will have to rely partly on the selections of Mike Ruddock, the new Wales coach. He might even take Ruddock with him to New Zealand. If I were in his position, I would take instead Gareth Jenkins, the Llanelli coach rejected by Wales in Ruddock's favour.

But badly though Jenkins was treated by the Welsh Rugby Union - and who is not treated badly by that body at some stage? - there is everything to be said for giving Ruddock a fair run. Already he has picked Michael Owen as No 8, not lock, for the Newport Gwent Dragons or whatever they want to be called, the team he still coaches. Oddly enough, the retiring Wales coach, Steve Hansen, made the same mistake as Woodward by picking an out-of-position back row, with Martyn Williams, one of the few genuine No 7s left in international rugby, as a kind of permanent travelling reserve.

Playing Owen at No 8 with Williams at No 7 would mean that Ruddock would have to make a decision about the respective merits of Charvis, Dafydd Jones and Jonathan Thomas at No 6. But that is precisely the kind of decision which coaches are paid to make, and one which Hansen avoided.

The truth is that the Wales back division came about in Australia largely by accident. It was the forwards that failed to solidify. Since then Hansen, now departed, has behaved with an extraordinary pig-headedness. It was difficult to see what more the lock Vernon Cooper could have done to play himself into the Wales side. His Llanelli colleague, the prop John Davies, would have strengthened the front row.

Even so, Wales are lucky to have such mobile alternatives as Gethin Jenkins, Duncan Jones and Adam Jones. I hope that Ruddock will give them all a chance. Inevitably, Woodward will have to give some of them a chance as well.

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