For those with eyes to see, there was a good deal more to this week's Lions announcement than a simple reading of 37 names and the confirmation of Paul O'Connell as tour captain. The final selection gave a clear indication of how Ian McGeechan and the rest of the coaching staff hope to engage the Springboks in South Africa this summer. They have gone for size, strength and power, not just in the forward pack but among the backs too. As the Boks tend to go about their rugby in the same way, it should be quite a collision.
There were some surprises, but in a squad of this size, there was always going to be a marginal decision here and there. The omission of Tom Croft, the Leicester flanker, really caught me unaware, not least because his positional flexibility gives him added value as a bench option. I would also have preferred to see the Welsh scrum-half Dwayne Peel involved, because this Lions party is just a little short of pizzazz. And of course, I feel sorry for the hard-working England captain Steve Borthwick, who I consider to be badly underrated by a lot of people, many of whom should know better.
If there is an area that seriously concerns me from the Lions' perspective, it is the line-out. The Boks could easily go in with five jumpers, so someone like Croft, a talented performer in this department, would have been invaluable. So too would Borthwick, who is acknowledged, even by his fiercest critics, as a line-out intellectual. It seems to me that the Lions will have to do a lot of compensating for the absence of guaranteed ball-winners, especially as the South Africans will have Victor Matfield at their disposal.
Working with Victor behind the scenes at the last World Cup, I quickly came to realise just how remarkable a player he is. If you watch him carefully, you'll see that he rarely attacks the opposition throw during the first half of a match. He treats the first 40 minutes as his "thinking time", during which he takes a microscopic look at the rival operation, calculates and analyses, attempts to unlock the calling code (unnervingly, he succeeds quite often) and generally identifies the best way of making a nuisance of himself after the interval. He really is very smart, and unless the Lions have someone capable of matching him thought for thought, they'll find themselves struggling.
That being said, the selection has a consistency about it that impresses me. The coaches have gone about their work methodically, and with clarity. They made up their minds early on the kind of player they wanted, then added and subtracted from the framework as the season unfolded. It explains why one or two players – most notably Andrew Powell, the Wales No 8 – were retained, even though their Six Nations form took a dip. Powell was terrific against the big southern hemisphere teams during the autumn, and that wasn't forgotten when the decisions came to be made.
I don't suppose for a moment that Gloucester will forget last Saturday in a hurry. A cup final at Twickenham in front of 60,000 spectators is not the best of stages on which to implode, but implode they did. I was amazed at how easily Cardiff Blues got away from them early on and I have to ask myself whether the problems at Kingsholm are more deep-rooted than anyone previously imagined.
I would not automatically lay all the blame at the door of the coach: Dean Ryan seems to me to be a knowledgeable, resourceful kind of bloke. I suspect there is something intrinsically wrong with the on-field leadership, particularly up front. Gloucester have one of the two or three strongest squads in the Premiership, yet consistently lose the important fixtures. It tells its own story.
They probably won't make the play-offs now, but even if everything goes their way this afternoon, I can't see too far past Leicester for the title. I admire teams who know how to produce their best form at the crucial moments, and the Tigers' timing this season has been perfect. Can anyone stop them? Only Harlequins, in my view. If the two meet in the final, the forward battle will be like Leicester v Leicester. Anyone spotting a player acting on the right side of the law at the breakdown will deserve to win the lottery.Reuse content