The speculation has been going on all season, the sands have been shifting constantly and even now, at this very late stage, there are some delicate decisions still to be made. But by Tuesday afternoon, we'll know the make-up of the British and Irish Lions squad for this summer's Test series in South Africa, the land of the world champions. Can the Lions repeat their victory of 1997, when the Springboks also held the Webb Ellis Trophy? With two of the three Tests being played at altitude, it is a lot to ask.
Certainly, there will be no Lions triumph if Ian McGeechan and his fellow coaches get it wrong in selection. Two areas of great importance are the captaincy and the players chosen in the spine positions of full-back, outside-half, scrum-half, hooker and No 8.
There are two outstanding candidates as captain, both of them Irish. On the face of it, it would be a gamble to turn away from Brian O'Driscoll, given his success in leading his country to a first Grand Slam in more than 60 years and his sharp upturn in form over recent months. But O'Driscoll was the Lions captain in New Zealand four years ago, and we all know the extent of the calamity that befell him there. Does he really want the job this time? I'd be very interested to hear his honest answer. He knows he'll go to South Africa as a senior player, with an influential voice. That may be enough for him.
Paul O'Connell, the Munsterman, would probably be my choice, always assuming there is no animosity between him and O'Driscoll that would prevent the two working closely together. In South Africa, you need a man who leads from the front, and in O'Connell, the Lions have someone who can stand up to John Smit, the Springbok captain, at the epicentre of the contest. There will be a lot of pressure on the referee in the Tests, and as Smit will be in the thick of whatever is going on, the Lions will need to fight their corner. That means having a leader who spends all his time in areas where most things happen, rather than out in the back line.
I'm sure the Lions management will identify a leadership group of four or five individuals who can speak and act with authority. Steve Borthwick, the England captain, should certainly be on the trip, and I imagine the Scotland captain Mike Blair will also be involved. I'm not so sure about Ryan Jones of Wales, who has slipped off his level this season. If he misses out, the outstanding flanker Martyn Williams should be given a major role.
Unfortunately, the Lions are not so well blessed in some of the spine positions. I've argued before that Ronan O'Gara has earned himself a shot at the No 10 role, but hooker and No 8 are fairly weak positions, while scrum-half and full-back are not as nailed on as they once seemed to be. To take the last first, Lee Byrne of Wales has had injury problems and he's not quite the player he was in the autumn. Do the Ospreys players work as hard on their games as they should? When I look at some of those sun-tans, I wonder. If Byrne isn't careful, England's Delon Armitage, who has plenty of mongrel in him, and Rob Kearney, a very solid operator with a big kicking game that could be useful on the high veld, will find a way past him.
Assuming the Boks play Smit at hooker, they'll have size and weight at the set piece and scrummage high. The Irishman Jerry Flannery and the Scot Ross Ford are built on a scale to compete. Whoever throws better at the line-out should get the job. No 8? Difficult. Andy Powell of Wales is brilliant at certain things, but largely untested; Nick Easter of England could struggle for gas on the veld. I liked how Jamie Heaslip played for Leinster at Harlequins last weekend. It was the best I've seen him perform in a tight contest.
Which leaves scrum-half. Mike Phillips is favoured by a lot of people, but he seems a little short of pace since returning from his knee injury. I see Dwayne Peel, rarely picked by Wales nowadays, as the coming man. Whenever I coached against Sale or Wales, I was happier if Peel wasn't playing. He can hurt any team. More than that, he has something to prove.Reuse content