Irish rugby, still gloriously drunk on the potent brew of a Six Nations Grand Slam and topping up its glass in anticipation of a Heineken Cup semi-final derby between the great provinces of Munster and Leinster, found itself in a state of unconfined joy once again yesterday. Fourteen Lions in a squad of 37? Unheard of. Yet for every celebration in Dublin or Limerick, there was a wake elsewhere. This Lions selection for the summer tour of South Africa was the most brutal in recent memory.
As widely anticipated, Paul O'Connell was awarded the captaincy at the expense of his countryman Brian O'Driscoll, who only a month ago guided Ireland to a first championship clean sweep in 61 years – an achievement that would have guaranteed him the honour in any other year. Ian McGeechan, the head coach, contacted O'Driscoll to explain his thinking. "I've always respected Brian, both as a player and a person," McGeechan said. "He deserved that phone call."
O'Connell, chosen as much for his second-row forward's bulk as for his skills as a leader of men in this most physically challenging of team sports, also contacted O'Driscoll. "Brian was a small bit disappointed, but at the same time he was delighted for me," he said. "It was the kind of conversation you'd expect to have with a top-class guy like him. When he's been captaining Ireland, he's always encouraged me to say the things I like to say when I'm leading Munster. I'll give him the same encouragement in South Africa."
Several other leading names – including the current captains of England, Scotland and Wales – could hardly have been more discouraged by the announcement made after an 11th-hour pow-wow between McGeechan and his senior lieutenants: the forwards coach Warren Gatland, the defence strategist Shaun Edwards and the attack coach Rob Howley. When the result of their musings was made public, there was a Grand National's worth of heavy fallers.
The England lock Steve Borthwick was among the foremost of these, as were the Scotland scrum-half Mike Blair and the Wales back-row forward Ryan Jones. All three led their national teams in the recent Six Nations and might have expected a seat on next month's Johannesburg-bound flight. Borthwick, it emerged, missed out for reasons of size, or lack of it, although the Lions will surely miss his line-out expertise. Blair and Jones paid the price for ill-timed lapses in form.
Among the other high-profile omissions were three Englishmen who must have been confident of making the cut: the full-back Delon Armitage, the wing Mark Cueto and the flanker Tom Croft. Armitage found himself surpassed by the Munster back Keith Earls, and the brilliant young Welshmen Leigh Halfpenny, whose exceptional performances for Cardiff Blues in two knock-out matches in as many weeks did the trick. Cueto was edged out by Ugo Monye – a surprising choice – while Croft, one of the form players at the back end of the Six Nations, was nudged aside by Alan Quinlan, another of O'Connell's rough-and-ready Munster colleagues.
There was an unexpected appearance in the hooking department too, in the shape of the Llanelli-based Welsh forward Matthew Rees. The No 2 position is one glaring weakness for the Lions, especially as the World Cup-winning Springbok captain John Smit performs this role for the hosts. However, the Ulsterman Rory Best and New Zealand-born England player Dylan Hartley were more obvious selections, not to mention the unusually substantial Ross Ford of Scotland.
It was a desperate day for the Scots. Only two were named – a fact that openly grieved McGeechan, who served the country with such skill and commitment both as a player and a coach – and of those, the lock Nathan Hines was born in Australia and plays his club rugby in Perpignan. Never in the post-war era has their Lions recognition been so scant. Mind you, the English have precious little to shout about in this regard. Their tally of eight is the lowest in more than a quarter of a century. Four years ago, no fewer than 21 travelled to New Zealand.
A number of top-of-the-bill acts were not considered because of injury – Jonny Wilkinson and Gavin Henson among them, although Henson stands every chance of featuring at some point in the tour, given the anticipated body-count from seven weeks of hard yakka in Bokke territory. Others, like the much talked-about Wasps outside-half Danny Cipriani, failed to make any sort of case for inclusion.
Not that the Lions will be particularly well blessed in the crucial outside-half department. The two players chosen, Stephen Jones and Ronan O'Gara, are plenty good enough on their day, but when all is said and done, they are only two. Since the trip to South Africa in 1997, when tour parties were first extended beyond the traditional 30-man format, coaches have given themselves extra options at No 10 and goal-kicking positions. McGeechan is taking a serious risk here.
"With only six games before the first Test, time is not on our side," he explained. "If our No 10s are going to have a really good shot at building the kind of game we want to play, they will need as much of that time as we can give them. If there are too many interchanges, you can lose the continuity you're trying to develop."
Clive Woodward discovered that much when he took on the All Blacks in 2005. McGeechan is determined not to make the same mistakes, but history tells us that goal-kicking – especially long-range goal-kicking – is fundamental to success in South African conditions. Neither Jones nor O'Gara possesses the biggest boot on earth. There may well be times in June and July when the Lions yearn for Wilkinson, or someone like him.
Mane men: Lions squad in full
Lee Byrne (Ospreys and Wales) A hot favourite all season, but undermined by injury and marginally off his game.
Rob Kearney (Leinster and Ireland) One of Ireland's new breed. Positionally flexible, physically adept.
Tommy Bowe (Ospreys and Ireland) A striking Six Nations performer, blessed with the physique to prosper.
Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster and Ireland) Top-notch footballer in the making. Highly skilled, tactically acute and quick.
Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues and Wales) Better late than never. The 20-year-old, goal-kicking wing has been superb recently.
Ugo Monye (Harlequins and England) Beat the more adaptable Mark Cueto to a place. Defensively excellent.
Shane Williams (Ospreys and Wales) Too small for South Africa? Maybe. But last summer, he was also too quick for them.
Keith Earls (Munster and Ireland) Ireland may not pick him, but his pace can be bewildering.
Riki Flutey (Wasps and England) A strong finish to the Six Nations pushed him forward. Good footwork, clever running angles.
Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster and Ireland) He could have been captain. Correction: he should have been captain.
Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues and Wales) Size matters in South Africa. No centre offers more of it.
Tom Shanklin (Cardiff Blues and Wales) One of the most consistent midfielders in Test rugby. Big tackler.
Stephen Jones (Scarlets and Wales) All-round contributor, has been building towards this for years.
Ronan O'Gara (Munster and Ireland) Once dismissed as a "choker", he held his nerve well enough in the Six Nations.
Harry Ellis (Leicester and England) Tough, abrasive, a disruptive tackler: the Boks would love him.
Tomas O'Leary (Munster and Ireland) Even more than his Test form, his form for Munster clinched it.
Mike Phillips (Ospreys and Wales) The biggest scrum-half around. If the Lions want an extra flanker, he's their man.
Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues and Wales) Disappointing in New Zealand four years ago, increasingly authoritative since.
Adam Jones (Ospreys and Wales) The haircut belies his efficiency.
Euan Murray (Northampton and Scotland) Most destructive tight head available to selectors.
Andrew Sheridan (Sale and England) Can cannibalise opposition packs. The Lions are praying he travels hungry.
Phil Vickery (Wasps and England) A Jason Leonard figure. Unfailingly positive, unfailingly brave.
Jerry Flannery (Munster and Ireland) Wild-eyed and, occasionally, wildly undisciplined. If the Boks fancy some humpty, he'll oblige them.
Lee Mears (Bath and England) Technically proficient, he is the least likely player to mess it up.
Matthew Rees (Scarlets and Wales) A surprise choice. Rory Best, Ross Ford and Dylan Hartley might have been better bets.
Nathan Hines (Perpignan and Scotland) Natural aggression counted in his favour.
Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys and Wales) A genuine line-out athlete who does not want for self-belief.
Donncha O'Callaghan (Munster and Ireland) Another bolshy so-and-so. Works well with O'Connell.
Paul O'Connell (Munster and Ireland) People routinely describe him as Johnsonesque. The proof of the pudding...
Simon Shaw (Wasps and England) A brilliant performer on the last South African jaunt, but that was 12 years ago.
Stephen Ferris (Ulster and Ireland) Springbok country is no place for shrinking violets. Ferris is not for shrinking.
Jamie Heaslip (Leinster and Ireland) Impressive on the rampage. Can he also defend for his life?
Andy Powell (Cardiff Blues and Wales) It's a jungle out there and Powell is one of the big beasts.
Alan Quinlan (Munster and Ireland) Was not on the public radar, but he fights his corner.
David Wallace (Munster and Ireland) If the Lions get on the front foot, he will win games.
Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues and Wales) Sheer class and another potential match-winner.
Joe Worsley (Wasps and England) A "tree-feller", but some of those Springbok trees are mighty big.Reuse content