Jonathan Davies: Take Wilkinson along, but Jones should be the first choice at No 10
Sunday 10 April 2005
If naming Jonny Wilkinson in the Lions squad for the tour of New Zealand is a gamble, then it is a gamble worth taking. Sir Clive Woodward hasn't that many top-form outside-halves that he can afford to miss out on the man who played such a big part in England's World Cup triumph.
Not that I believe Wilkinson can work his way straight into the Test team. Stephen Jones of Wales is the stand-out player to occupy the Lions No 10 spot. There's no doubt in my mind that Jones is almost as certain of his place in the Test team as the top cert, Brian O'Driscoll. But we're talking about a demanding tour and if there's a good chance Wilkinson will be fully fit and eager by the time they embark on this thrilling adventure, Woodward must take him.
Woodward needs to pack the squad with experience, and this is why he will be tempted to pick players who won the World Cup the last time they went on a serious expedition Down Under. Charlie Hodgson hasn't played with confid-ence, and Ronan O'Gara has not had his best season. At least Woodward knows what he'd be getting from Wilkinson. If he takes Gavin Henson, he could be included among the stand-off contenders.
Apart from experience, the Lions could also be short of leadership. That's why I'm sure Lawrence Dallaglio will go. There's no way Woodward will pick Dallaglio over O'Driscoll as captain, but on a tour as hard as this you need as many natural leaders as you can get. That's why I'd take Matt Dawson and Neil Back as well. And there's a few other old hands who look to be winning their long battles against injury. Richard Hill, Julian White and Will Greenwood come into that category, as does Colin Charvis. There are enough valuable players rushing up from the casualty department to justify Woodward leaving some gaps for a week or two.
It's still very difficult to predict the First Test team because so much can happen between now and 25 June, and Woodward has given no clues about his tactical intentions. It would be no surprise if he chose one or two uncapped players, though: George Chuter, the Leicester hooker, has been showing good form and throws in well; and if needs big, ball-carrying centres, then Ayoola Erinle of Wasps could be very useful.
I've been loath to join in the team-picking predictions because of the difficulties mentioned above but, at the moment, this would be my team. My front row would be Gethin Jenkins, who had an excellent Six Nations; Robin McBryde, who is the best all-round hooker; and the powerhouse Julian White.
The second row is hard, but I would go for Ireland's Paul O'Connell and Danny Grewcock, who bring that vital bit of dog to the proceedings. Ben Kay and Brent Cockbain would run Grewcock close in that nuisance-value department.
The back row is another problem area, and will depend on whether the coach wants a ball-carrying unit or two flying flankers. My choice would be Dallaglio at six, Michael Owen at eight and Martyn Williams at seven, but I am aware of the challenge that Martin Corry, Colin Charvis and Back will mount.
The Welsh half-back partnership of Jones and Dwayne Peel has to offer the most serious claim for selection. I hear that Woodward is keen on the Scottish scrum-halves Mike Blair and Chris Cusiter. It's difficult to show your true worth playing in a weak side, but the coach might have seen flashes that fit into his ideas. Yet I don't think the Jones-Peel axis can be bettered on Six Nations form.
On the wings, I would give Jason Robinson a narrow vote over Shane Williams. Robinson hasn't played well at full-back because opponents have worked him out, but he has the edge in devastation potential. On the other wing I go for Gareth Thomas, because you need someone of stature to cope with Joe Rococoko.
Thomas would also have claims at inside-centre, and there are plenty of good candidates to play alongside O'Driscoll. But, while acknowledging the claims of Gordon D'Arcy, Henson and Mike Tindall, I'll pick Tom Shanklin.
At full-back I'd have Josh Lewsey. Geordan Murphy hasn't found any form recently, but Wales's Kevin Morgan has certainly put in a good shout. However, Lewsey is solid and hits good angles.
Davies' test team
15 Josh Lewsey (England)
14 Jason Robinson (England)
13 Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland, capt)
12 Tom Shanklin (Wales)
11 Gareth Thomas (Wales)
10 Stephen Jones (Wales)
9 Dwayne Peel (Wales)
1 Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
2 Robin McBryde (Wales)
3 Julian White (England)
4 Paul O'Connell (Ireland)
5 Danny Grewcock (England)
6 Lawrence Dallaglio (England)
7 Martyn Williams (Wales)
8 Michael Owen (Wales)
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