Davies backs Jones to lead Lions in South Africa

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The Independent Online

Ryan Jones, the Ospreys No 8 who emerged from the back end of nowhere to buck the trend of the last British and Irish Lions tour by actually playing well, has been a warmish favourite to lead the red-shirted hordes on their next venture, to South Africa in May, since captaining Wales to an unexpected Grand Slam last season. The temperature went up another couple of degrees yesterday when Mervyn Davies, the finest Lions No 8 of them all, hitched himself to the Jones bandwagon.

"The position in which a captain plays is quite important," said Davies, who participated in all four Tests in the victorious visit to New Zealand in 1971 and was an ever-present once more when the Lions gave the Springboks a seeing-to of unprecedented proportions three years later. "Rugby is still a forward-oriented game – you win and lose games up front, where the grunt is. If Ryan keeps his form and fitness, he must have every opportunity.

"He thinks about the game, carries the ball well, reads things well as a captain and has all the physical attributes of a modern back-row forward. He is also comfortable with the public role off the field. When I first captained Wales, I was more worried about my speech after the game than actually playing."

Never short of an opinion and rarely reluctant to voice it, Davies also took a swipe at Sir Clive Woodward's handling of the 2005 trek to All Black country, during which the Lions were spanked 3-0 in the Test series. "It seemed a bit like a travelling circus," he said. "Decisions appeared to have been made about who was playing, and when, before the squad left these shores, and as Lions tours have become much shorter, it is difficult to change pre-conceived plans. It seemed things were worked out by computer, rather than by any other method."

Jones, a central figure in an Ospreys glitterati that includes the James Hook-Gavin Henson-Shane Williams triumvirate, is about to welcome another high-achieving performer to the club in the shape of Jamie Nutbrown, who won second-string honours with New Zealand A and played Super 14 rugby with the Waikato Chiefs. Nutbrown has persuaded his province, Bay of Plenty, to tear up his contract and sanction the move to Wales.

The Ospreys lost another New Zealand half-back, the former Test captain Justin Marshall, to the French Top 14 club Montpellier during the summer, and have the current Wales first-choicer Mike Phillips on the injury list. Nutbrown will fly north at the weekend and may conceivably turn out against Cardiff Blues next week.

With the first round of Guinness Premiership games looming large, Newcastle's assistant coach Stuart Grimes has been talking about the relegation favourites "sneaking under the radar" – hardly a form of words to make the Kingston Park spectators feel confident about beating the odds. The northerners have lost two of England's more gifted youngsters, the inside back Toby Flood and the outside back Mathew Tait, to richer, more powerful clubs in Leicester and Sale respectively. If for no other reason, the paying public on Tyneside fear the worst.

"We've changed a lot from last season," argued the former Scotland international lock. "I think there is a tradition among clubs of talking themselves up in the weeks before a new season, but we're just working hard and getting on with the job. We're focusing on the real basics and on maximising the benefits of the new experimental laws, which will depower a lot of the Premiership's mauling sides."

Grimes believes this, together with the increased time demands on international players, of whom Newcastle now have fewer than most, will work in the club's favour. "I don't think some people have truly considered the implications of these things," he said.

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