It used to be so simple. When a team won a Grand Slam in Lions year, as Wales did before the trips to New Zealand in 1950 and 1971, the Test side reflected with considerable accuracy the balance of power among the home unions. Then England started confusing everything. Precious few members of Bill Beaumont's clean-sweepers featured in the series against South Africa in 1980, although Beaumont himself was captain, and when Sir Clive Woodward, a red-rose patriot beside whom John Bull reeks of treachery, led an embarrassingly overstaffed squad to All Black country in 2005, his marginalisation of the Welshmen who had gone through the Six Nations card a few weeks previously caused a furore in Newport and all points west.
Not even Woodward would ignore Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell ahead of the forthcoming arm- wrestle with the Springboks, so we can be absolutely certain that Ian McGeechan, a coach with a long track record of telling the wood from the trees, will select the two outstanding Irish players of their generation, thereby rewarding them for their Grand Slam heroics over the last couple of months. In truth, Ireland could have lost all five matches and still seen their two green-shirted titans board the plane. Some players are so good, they pick themselves irrespective of results.
But what of the rest? What of Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald, Ronan O'Gara and Gordon D'Arcy, Jerry Flannery and Stephen Ferris? Things have become rather complicated here, not least because England – yes, them again – muddied the waters by playing unusually well for unusually long periods against France and Scotland. Who at the start of the season saw Delon Armitage in a Lions jersey? Those saying they did are lying through their teeth. The same goes for Riki Flutey, Toby Flood, Lee Mears and Tom Croft.
Had McGeechan opted to retrace Woodward's steps and select enough players to fill Thunderbird II, the choice would be relatively easy. But he hasn't, so it isn't. The most experienced coach in Lions history – not to mention the most successful, with two series victories and a near miss behind him – says he will pick 35 or 36 players, rather than 350, and as a result, some big names will be sweating on the announcement when it is made towards the end of next month. Steve Borthwick, the England captain, might miss out, just as his predecessor Phil de Glanville was overlooked (by McGeechan, note) a little over a decade ago, while Ryan Jones, the captain of Wales, is in a loose-forward dogfight with people performing just a little better than he is.
At least Jones has some high-profile games ahead of him in which to reinforce his case: this week's EDF Cup semi-final against Gloucester, followed by Ospreys' eagerly awaited Heineken Cup semi-final in Munster. Borthwick does not have this luxury, given that Saracens, free-falling their way towards a South African ground zero, have become an irrelevance since he last turned out for them. Most of the Scottish candidates (and there aren't many of them) are also prey to the "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome. At least Euan Murray, the tight-head prop, plays his rugby at Northampton.
McGeechan will cast a keen eye over the seven major cup ties scheduled to be played before the witching hour of final selection in the hope that they generate some light as well as heat, for the Six Nations was not of enormous help to him. A team of the tournament would feature plenty of Lions contenders: only the brilliant new French wing Maxime Medard and his countryman Thierry Dusautoir – plus, inevitably, the Italian No 8 Sergio Parisse, who has a legitimate claim to being the best player in the world – could expect to find places in a British Isles-dominated side. However, some of the coach's odds-on favourites before Christmas have weakened since.
Take Shane Williams, for instance. Less than a year ago, he was running rings round a Springbok wing as potent as Bryan Habana and cementing himself in the minds of the judges as the International Rugby Board's player of 2008, yet in the tight Six Nations games of recent weeks he has been much less effective. He is, of course, every inch a Lion, but as the Irish half-backs reminded us at the Millennium Stadium, those inches are in very short supply. Is McGeechan prepared to gamble that the South Africans will not pepper the diminutive Welshman with high balls, or will he pick a bigger man – Kearney, let's say – on the basis that defence wins matches.
And then there is the question of dear old Gavin Henson, the celebrity centre with a disciplinary record almost as unfortunate as his body language. During last Saturday's magnificent Six Nations finale in Cardiff, Henson wowed the crowd with some lovely touches while giving the impression that he couldn't have cared less whether he was there or not. He then proceeded to bad-mouth his team in public, for the second international match running. Is he worth the fuss and bother? Probably. Will he get through an entire seven-week tour without saying the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time? Probably not.
There again, Warren Gatland has not been setting the best of examples just lately – and he will be one of the Lions' senior strategists. The Wales coach said things about Ireland, with whom he once worked, that immediately returned to bite him on his front-row forward's backside, so it will be interesting to see if he leaves the mind games to someone else on arrival in South Africa. At least his team stretched the Irish to snapping point at the weekend, thereby underling the fact that although they finished fourth in the Six Nations table, they were very definitely the second best team in the competition.
Not that this was nearly enough to meet public expectation. Only Ireland managed that. England, who have not won a title since 2003 and gave no indication that things were about to change, finished in credit on the results sheet, just as they did in 2008. The difference? Martin Johnson will not be ritually slaughtered – just try it – for finishing runner-up, as Brian Ashton was for doing precisely the same this time last year. That's the Rugby Football Union for you.
For all that, Brian Smith, a self-proclaimed Ashton disciple, is beginning to summon some green shoots of recovery on the attacking front. His faith in Flutey, a wholly positive influence in midfield in recent matches, has been seen to be justified, as has his enthusiastic support of Armitage at full-back. It may also be that he has found himself a genuinely creative spirit at outside-half in Flood, whose distribution in the Calcutta Cup match was a joy to behold.
All England need now is for Jonny Wilkinson to get fit and Danny Cipriani to get his act together. That will really confuse things. In rugby, having too many options is every bit as troublesome as having too few. Ask McGeechan, the man with the Lion-sized headache.Reuse content