Peter Bills: Lions short of world class

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The Independent Online

Dotted around the dining tables at the London venue for the recent IRB Annual Awards were some veritable names and faces. I thought of the fun you could have choosing your all-time Test team…..

That great New Zealand No. 8 Murray Mexted sat next to me and the 2009 Lions manager Gerald Davies was close by. Bryan Habana wasn’t far away. Former Scottish full-back Gavin Hastings was his usual warm, cheerful self and Wales’s Shane Williams, who won the Player of the Year award, would be left wing. Half backs? Let’s go for those marvellous Pumas, Hugo Porta and Agustin Pichot, the former presenting the latter with an award during the evening. Or maybe you’d make room for a New Zealander called Dan Carter…………



At centre, Will Greenwood would be in there, and maybe I’d sneak in the man I chatted to before dinner, Australia’s Lote Tuqiri.



Up front? Plenty here to impress…….. Syd Millar (Ireland), Raphael Ibanez (France), Bill Beaumont and Martin Johnson of England, George Smith (Australia), Richie McCaw and either Ryan Jones or Murray Mexted at No. 8…..



Take your pick from Eddie Jones, Jake White, Graham Henry (the IRB Coach of the Year), Gary Gold (South Africa), Declan Kidney or Frank Hadden as the coach of this team of talents.



Such light-hearted thoughts were generally the order of a thoroughly pleasant evening. But there was one comment, from the lips of Gerald Davies that could be construed as concern. Asked about the triumphs of the southern hemisphere teams in the autumn Tests in this part of the world (Wales’s subsequent victory over the Australians notwithstanding), Davies suggested that the northern hemisphere boys, those from the four Home Unions with ambitions on Lions tour places next May, might well have to raise their game. As ever, the eloquent Davies was spot on.



No-one much from Ireland or England has thrust up their hands in this autumn Test series. Likewise Scotland, scrum half Mike Blair excepted. For sure, a few Welshmen have – indeed, you can see the shape of a possible Lions Test team already emerging and Welshmen could well feature prominently.



Lee Byrne at full-back, Shane Williams on one wing, the shrewd Tom Shanklin perhaps in midfield; maybe Stephen Jones or James Hook at outside half. Up front, Gethin Jenkins could be loose head prop, Ryan Jones, Martin Williams and Adam Powell possible back row men.



But with Scotland nowhere and England rebuilding this winter, I fear the Lions selectors are going to be worryingly short of real world class for this tour. You’d envisage Irishmen like Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Geordan Murphy, David Wallace and maybe Jerry Flannery finding a place somewhere. Perhaps, too, Luke Fitzgerald.



But does this likely Lions Test side equate with 1971 – C.M.H. Gibson, Edwards and John, JPR, Gerald Davies and Duckham – or 1974, when JPR, Edwards, Bennett, McBride, JJ Williams, Cotton, Brown, Slattery, Uttley and Mervyn Davies toured? Not remotely so, in my book.



It seems that unless something remarkable happens in the Six Nations, the Lions will fly out next May as rank underdogs against world champions South Africa, with all their experience and proven quality.

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