Flexibility the Lions' key, not Welsh accent

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The Independent Online

When everyone was predicting their Lions line-ups months ago I refused to join in, because it was far too early. Many of the pundits who did not have a Welshman anywhere near their teams have since had cause to blush.

When everyone was predicting their Lions line-ups months ago I refused to join in, because it was far too early. Many of the pundits who did not have a Welshman anywhere near their teams have since had cause to blush.

Of course, since Wales won the Six Nations the experts have all been flooding their teams with Welshmen. Again, I think they are being a little premature. I am sure Sir Clive Woodward has most of his 44-strong squad already inked in, but there is still a wave of Heineken Cup matches to be played, and he will be keeping a few options open while taking a last look at some of the candidates.

His task is not as simple as just picking the bulk of the championship-winning team. Although there are many Welshmen who now justify inclusion after their excellent performances, Woodward's first consideration is shaping a squad best able to fulfil his tactical approach to the Tour.

With his usual meticulousness, he has spent time with all the squads, and will have worked out his campaign in detail. I am not sure he has yet finalised his Test gameplan but he will have a good idea how he will face up to the formidable All Blacks.

The first question he has to ask is: would any of the current Six Nations packs dominate the All Blacks up front like England did in 2003? The answer is no. But there are positives, and many of those are to be found in the backs, so he will have no problem in putting an attacking side together.

Obviously, he won't want to throw the ball about with gay abandon, so he will pack his squad with players who are adaptable to any playing pattern. Most of the players we saw in the Six Nations are capable of performing in a way that will suit the conditions and the way the All Blacks are playing. I believe this flexibility will be uppermost in his mind, and will dictate who will eventually find places.

Woodward will want the ability to secure control in the scrum and win a lion's share of line-outs, and a back-row capable of competing with their opposite numbers - and he will want the same players to be able to lend a hand in the sort of surging attacking Wales so excitingly demonstrated.

Selecting the players will just be the start of the process. From then on it will be down to his expert team of coaches to drill them into the mind-set that's required.

You can be sure that this will be a very carefully planned operation, and Woodward will be more comfortable if a few familiar faces from his England World Cup triumph are among the personnel assembled for duty.

I have felt all along that Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson will go and, injury permitting, so will Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Tindall. Julian White is another who would qualify if fit.

The Lions' preparatory match against Argentina at the Millennium Stadium in May will be a testing time and he will want some players with him whom he knows intimately and can trust. Selection will not be easy, because he will need four players for each key position.

And the final Test selection will come down to who is performing well out there and which players show themselves to be up for the challenge. So it is not as simple as matching players to positions on recent form.

He will have looked deeper into the Six Nations tournament than most. He will have noted how the Welsh picked up momentum game by game, and how versatile they were. He will have been aware of the struggles of the Scots and how difficult it was for an individual to shine. He will wonder how much the underperformance of the Irish was due to the fact that they were tired and jaded.

As for the English, he will certainly have noticed their lack of confidence. And he may wonder what would have happened had they beaten Wales at the Millennium Stadium. They would not have deserved it, but had they done so I reckon they would have gone on to beat France. Wales thoroughly deserved their success, but it would not have taken much for there to have been a different conclusion to the Six Nations.

All these things will be going through Woodward's mind, which is why guessing at his Lions team still remains a futile exercise.

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