O'Driscoll deserves chance to lead by example

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The Independent Online

In the fading light of the Six Nations' Championship, the captaincy of the British and Irish Lions comes down to two players, and the Irish influence has never been stronger. One of the easiest decisions facing the coach, Ian McGeechan, and the manager, Gerald Davies, is whether Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell should be the man who lands in South Africa carrying the Lions mascot.

Ryan Jones, the captain of Wales, has always held his hand up but he has been outstretched by last weekend's brilliant climax against Ireland.

The most obvious answer is O'Driscoll, the Ireland captain who inspired his country with crucial tries at key moments. He also has unfinished business with the Lions after a lamentable tour to New Zealand in 2005, when his world was turned upside down by a double hit in the opening minutes of the First Test.

O'Driscoll would love the chance to lead again and he deserves it. That would leave O'Connell, a towering presence in the Irish second row, as vice-captain and leader of the pack. However, the punters have backed the lock forward and Irish bookmakers have stopped taking money on O'Connell being named as the Lions' leader.

McGeechan was in Dublin last week for talks with Declan Kidney. Had this been four years ago, when Sir Clive Woodward had more coaches than National Express, Ireland's coach might have been taken on board.

"Geech is in touch with all the national coaches," said Davies, "but there's no chance of changing or adding to our coaching set-up." The partnership of Davies and McGeechan is supposed to be the dream team. What they will change is the composition of the squad, which will be at least 15 members shy of Woodward's bloated, obliterated party. "In the past the Lions would be selected at the end of the Five or Six Nations, but now we're still looking at high-level matches," Davies explained. A squad of no more than 36 players will be named on 21 April.

"It wasn't a vintage Six Nations because of the lack of consistency," he added. "Teams hit form and lost form. Ireland were the most consistent without having significant depth. England started poorly and finished strongly. Wales didn't play as well as the previous season and maybe that was down to second-year syndrome, but it was a very thin margin. Scotland had their good moments but again there was no consistency.

"Overall we've liked what we've seen. There are lots of strong individuals fighting for places and there will be a lot of stiff competition. Whoever we pick, a lot of people will have a different opinion. That's the challenge of choosing the Lions."

One of the biggest challenges is hitting on the right half-backs. Ronan O'Gara can be a loser and a matchwinner in the space of an hour; Stephen Jones has kept James Hook on the bench; Toby Flood came good; and then there's the question of Danny Cipriani and Jonny Wilkinson, who recovered from injury just in time to make the tour to New Zealand and probably wished he hadn't.

Probable Lions 1st XV: Lee Byrne; Mark Cueto, Brian O'Driscoll, Riki Flutey, Shane Williams; Ronan O'Gara, Mike Blair; Gethin Jenkins, Jerry Flannery, Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones, Paul O'Connell, Tom Croft, Ryan Jones, David Wallace.