Eight months is a long time to spend picking a rugby team that will barely last eight weeks, but when a player as good as Jonny Wilkinson chooses the last available moment to set the cat amongst the selectorial pigeons – his weekend performance for Toulon in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Twickenham sent feathers flying in all directions – it underlines the value of caution. Warren Gatland, the head coach for this summer’s tour of Australia, met with his fellow think-tankers today for one last round-table discussion. There was plenty on the agenda.
The captaincy issue
It seems the Wales flanker Sam Warburton is nailed on for the grandest honour in British Isles rugby: the bookmakers who suspended betting on the Lions leadership in recent days were not showing a Gladstonian desire to save the great unwashed from spiritual decay, but attempting to minimise damage to their own bank accounts. Warburton started the long sifting process as favourite and has ended it the same way, having flirted with rank outsider status during a rough spell either side of Christmas.
But is he really the right choice? Gatland knows him and trusts him: the two men braved the World Cup fires together in 2011 and celebrated a Six Nations clean sweep a few months later. Yet Warburton’s own mentor at Cardiff Blues, the three-tour Lions breakaway Martyn Williams, has questioned the validity of the appointment. “Until you tour, you don’t know what it’s like,” Williams said. “The magnitude, the hype – it knocks you for six. I would have gone with Brian O’Driscoll or Paul O’Connell because they’ve been there and done it.”
Even without the rumours of Warburton’s reluctance to reassume the Wales captaincy during the Six Nations and the stone-cold fact of O’Connell’s majestic late-season form, it is hard to see how O’D riscoll’s claim has been resisted (if indeed it has). The nearest thing to a genuinely great player produced in these islands in the professional era, his determination to win a Lions series at his fourth and final attempt makes him the emotional centrepiece of the party.
The Wilkinson conundrum
There is a part of the great perfectionist who sees one last shot at Lions glory as a perfect delayed coda to a momentous international career, the final movement of which ended some 18 months ago in the wake of a profoundly imperfect World Cup campaign with England. Wilkinson has been pushing the tour claims of others for much of the season, but when pressed on his availability for a Test return in Wallaby land, he has never said never.
In leading Toulon to victory on Sunday, he forced Gatland and his colleagues to at least reconsider his merits as a goal-kicking, game-managing outside-half. But facts are facts. The coach insists that the tour party must leave as one rather than in dribs and drabs, and as Wilkinson is likely to be playing club rugby in Paris on the very day the Lions meet the Barbarians in Hong Kong in the first of their 10 matches, there is no way of squaring the circle. Either Gatland makes a special case, or he leaves a special player behind.
Wilkinson had the better of his successor in the England side, Owen Farrell, when the two met at the weekend, but is he really a stronger candidate than Jonathan Sexton of Ireland as the Test pivot against Australia? When Jonny-boy is in the mix, coaches find it devilishly difficult to leave him out of the starting line-up. We saw that much at the last World Cup. It may be best to leave him to his bouillabaisse.
The Robshaw puzzle
It is worth remembering that as recently as the middle of last month, Chris Robshaw was among the hot tips for the Lions captaincy. One heavy Six Nations defeat in Cardiff and a couple of below-par club performances later, he is the Foinavon of the back-row stakes – a long-odds bet who, in the eyes of many, can only land the prize he craves if everyone else collapses around him. The poor soul must be wondering what the hell and why.
If the Lions are short of options in some areas, the ever-mystifying position of inside centre being the obvious example, they have back row candidates coming out of their cauliflower ears. No coach in his right mind would travel without Warburton or his countryman Justin Tipuric; the punishing work-rate of the Irish flanker Sean O’Brien and the off-the-scale athleticism of England’s Tom Croft will be of enormous value; Toby Faletau of Wales has performed at a higher level than any of his rival No 8s. With an under-performing No 8 in Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip finally reasserting his claim at the weekend, the squeeze is asphyxiating.
Yet Robshaw’s sacrifices and successes with England over the last few months surely outweigh the negatives of the Millennium Stadium on Grand Slam day (a match in which he played pretty damned well). The curse of the England captaincy did for Phil de Glanville in 1997 and Steve Borthwick in 2009. On both occasions, their teams had finished second in the Five/Six Nations. The parallels are grim indeed.
The fitness debate
Sir Ian McGeechan, who knows a thing or three about the art of Lions coaching, said the other day that taking an unfit player on tour was one of rugby’s deadlier sins. Could this be the same McGeechan who not only handed a flight ticket to the orthopaedically challenged Martin Johnson in 1997, but also handed him the captaincy? Yes indeed. “Well…no one knew about Martin’s injury, did they?” the great man explained.
Gatland is not thought to be in a similarly sensitive position ahead of the trip Down Under (although there are concerns about the Wales hooker Richard Hibbard, currently struggling with a dodgy knee), but the idea of taking fit players who are woefully short of match practice has definitely crossed his mind. The Newport Gwent Dragons flanker Dan Lydiate, one of his favourite individuals, falls into this category. So does Tommy Bowe, the wing-come-centre from Ulster.
Lydiate busted his ankle last September, did not return until late last month and has little meaningful rugby left to him ahead of the tour – one of the many downsides of playing for the weakest of the Welsh regions. Bowe is better off in terms of fixtures and has the experience of the 2009 Lions tour to draw on, but he has fired precious few shots since damaging knee ligaments before Christmas.
Both were under discussion at today’s meeting and many assume they will be picked. At which point, some of those who flogged their way through the Six Nations will wonder why they bothered.
The national balance
Another of McGeechan’s maxims is that when it comes to piecing together a Lions squad, “you want all four nations to be smiling”. This may seem a bit rich, coming from a Scot who found room for only two of his countrymen in his original party in 2009. And one of those, the Wagga Wagga-born Nathan Hines, was more Ned Kelly than Rob Roy.
It is also worth mentioning that McGeechan would not have taken the entire Scottish tight unit to New Zealand in 1993 had he been given a free hand in selection, rather than been forced to kow-tow to a committee. No one can accuse the most garlanded Lion of them all of being a petty-minded patriot.
The national mix is as delicate as it is important: it was with this in mind that Gatland made his recent controversial comments about the risks of taking “too many Englishmen”. The balance generally tilts towards the form nations although Sir Clive Woodward’s heavily over-populated squad in 2005 contained twice as many English players as Welsh ones, even though Wales had won a Six Nations Grand Slam and beaten their neighbours into fourth place
With the demise of the selection committee, a horse-trading exercise if ever there was one, political picks are mercifully rare. But if, as is widely expected, Gatland includes the out-of-sorts Scottish lock Richie Gray, questions will be asked. Gray has been practically invisible this season – quite an achievement for a bombshell-blond, 6ft 10ins, 20st, high-flying line-out specialist.
Roar power Chris Hewett's squad
Full-backs: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Rob Kearney (Irl). Wings Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo (Irl), Alex Cuthbert, George North (Wales), Sean Maitland (Scot).
Centres: Jonathan Davies, James Hook, Jamie Roberts (Wales), Brian O'Driscoll (Irl, capt), Manu Tuilagi (Eng).
Outside-halves: Owen Farrell (Eng), Jonathan Sexton (Irl).
Scrum-halves: Greig Laidlaw (Scot), Mike Phillips (Wales), Ben Youngs (Eng).
Props: Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola (Eng), Cian Healy, Mike Ross (Irl), Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones (Wales).
Hookers: Dylan Hartley, Tom Youngs (Eng), Richard Hibbard (Wales).
Locks: Ian Evans, Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Paul O'Connell (Irl), Geoff Parling (Eng).
Loose forwards: Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw (Eng), Toby Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton (Wales), Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien (Irl).