Chris Hewett: Lions questions remain in year of the Dragons

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A quality tournament, or merely a quirky one? Dick Best coached both England and the Lions, so he knows his onions.

A quality tournament, or merely a quirky one? Dick Best coached both England and the Lions, so he knows his onions. But when "old sulphuric" enraged the Welsh by dismissing this Six Nations as a once-in-a-generation freak show, he did the competition a disservice. No, the French will not make a habit of deconstructing winning advantages in front of their own people; no, the English will not always pick the wrong team, miss goals by the dozen and fall out with optically challenged South African referees. But Wales played the best, most consistent rugby - France matched them, but only in flashes - and turned the world upside down in the process.

They really were that hot, then? Absolutely. While they were exposed in a few areas - Gethin Jenkins may be many things, but international-class front rows require three players rather than one - Wales had more players performing out of their socks than any of their rivals. Stephen Jones and Gavin Henson have always been top-notch, as have the Williams boys, Shane and Martyn.

But no one, not even the Red Dragon management if truth were told, imagined Tom Shanklin, Brent Cockbain and Michael Owen delivering on such a scale. If the Lions were picking today, those three bolters would merit a look.

Ah, the Lions. Where do they now stand in the great scheme of things? They look good enough in parts - wing, centre, lock, back row - but are up a gum tree elsewhere. If Sir Clive Woodward spotted two half-decent hookers amid the flotsam and jetsam that drifted past his eyes over the past seven weeks, he must have watched a different tournament to everyone else.

Outside-half? Dodgy in the extreme. Ronan O'Gara disappeared into his own nether regions in Cardiff on Saturday while Charlie Hodgson seems on the verge of manic depression, despite the occasional majesty of his passing game. The Scots? Please. Only Stephen Jones looks remotely like a Lion at the moment, so Woodward could use an orthopaedic miracle on the Jonny Wilkinson front.

Any other problem positions? Afraid so. Tight-head prop may be the biggest worry of the lot, thanks to the injuries affecting Julian White and Phil Vickery. The Scots do not frighten anyone in this department - or indeed in any department - and with the best will in the world, John Hayes of Ireland and Adam Jones of Wales are some way short of the necessary. Woodward must be on his knees every night, praying that one or both of the Englishmen declare themselves fit.

If Woodward has his problems, what about Andy Robinson? England deserved everything they got - or rather, did not get - from this tournament, with the single exception of Jonathan Kaplan's scandalous refereeing performance in Dublin. Robinson got it wrong in selection before the Wales game, when he left Olly Barkley out of his starting midfield.

They are going through one of those periodic charmless spells, when even the best of their tries seem lacking in romance. The coach will not be on the phone to the Samaritans just yet, though. Martin Corry's performances were a major result, as was Barkley's command of the inside centre position and Matt Stevens' emergence as a ball-carrying prop of genuine potency. Mark Cueto and Josh Lewsey were pretty good, too. England are building again, after seeing their World Cup-winning side crumble to dust. Expect them to be a force in next year's tournament.

And Jason Robinson? Oh dear. Robinson led the side to three defeats, albeit in the most difficult fixtures, and fired so many blanks from full-back that he might have been carrying a cap-gun. Serge Betsen made a fearful mess of him, thereby confirming that the best players in the world have him worked out. It may well be that the most celebrated cross-coder in English rugby has had his day in the No 15 shirt. If he gets his place back, it will probably be as a left winger.

Who, apart from the Welsh, will sleep most easily? Probably the French, even though their winning performances against Scotland and England betrayed a miserable lack of ambition. Bernard Laporte indicated at the start of the tournament that he had half an eye on the next World Cup, and by blooding the likes of Benoît Baby, Julien Laharrague, David Marty and the extraordinary Yannick Nyanga, he already has some strong foundations in place. Dimitri Yachvili is the most effective scrum-half in the world, Christophe Dominici is back to his exhilarating best and Fabien Pelous shows no signs of weakness, let alone sporting senility. Put a few bob on them now for 2007.

Ireland? Scotland? Italy? Disappointing, all of them. The Irish talked themselves up, both before the tournament and during its early stages, only to be ripped apart by the two teams prepared to indulge their attacking imaginations, France and Wales. They need a new front row, a new No 8 and a fit Gordon D'Arcy in midfield. Scotland were a shambles defensively - there is more physical contact at a senior citizens' curling tournament - while Italy, never short of physicality, were a shambles offensively. Under the circumstances, the likes of Chris Paterson and Marco Bortolami deserve medals the size of soup plates, just for keeping their peckers up.

Will it be any different next season? There are no good reasons why it should be. There again, who saw Wales coming this year? The Red Dragonhood did us all a favour, just by daring to be different. Long may they roar.

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