O'Driscoll the leader of Lions but Wilkinson is forced to wait and see

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The Independent Online

The British and Irish Lions cannot quite bring themselves to give up on Jonny Wilkinson, which is possibly a mistake. They have certainly given up on Mark Cueto and Jason White, which is definitely an error. Elsewhere, however, they are bang on the money in terms of beating the All Blacks in their own silver-ferned heartland this summer: lots of Welsh backs, even more English forwards and an enticing mix of youthful romance and hard-nosed realism, spiced and seasoned with the brilliance of Brian O'Driscoll.

The British and Irish Lions cannot quite bring themselves to give up on Jonny Wilkinson, which is possibly a mistake. They have certainly given up on Mark Cueto and Jason White, which is definitely an error. Elsewhere, however, they are bang on the money in terms of beating the All Blacks in their own silver-ferned heartland this summer: lots of Welsh backs, even more English forwards and an enticing mix of youthful romance and hard-nosed realism, spiced and seasoned with the brilliance of Brian O'Driscoll.

The 26-year-old Dubliner, by some distance the most potent outside centre in the world game despite spending so much of his international career digging an overrated Ireland pack out of the mire, was confirmed yesterday as the captain of the New Zealand-bound party, thereby succeeding the great Leicester lock Martin Johnson in one of rugby's most challenging roles. If Sir Clive Woodward, the man responsible for appointing O'Driscoll, had spent the previous seven and a half months chewing the fat over the make-up of his 44-man squad, the choice of head honcho must have taken him all of seven and a half seconds.

"Brian is a proven world-class player and a proven leader who excels in so many ways," said England's World Cup-winning coach, who will oversee this 11-match trek, less a traditional tour than a full-scale sporting invasion, across the least hospitable rugby territory on God's earth. For his part, O'Driscoll described himself as "overwhelmed", adding that the prospect of working "with so much talent in an environment offering so many possibilities" was the high watermark of his career to date.

It was always clear that England, despite their trials and tribulations during the Six Nations Championship, would contribute heavily on the personnel front, and Woodward duly named 20 of his former charges. Nine of those who started the World Cup final against Australia 17 months ago will fly to Auckland on 25 May, including two loose forwards, Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back, who cut the cord with the red rose army during the prolonged and often painful aftermath of that wondrous night in Sydney. Another celebrated back-rower, Richard Hill, and the creative midfielder Will Greenwood will be alongside them, despite being in the early stages of their comebacks from serious knee and shoulder conditions.

Equally, it was obvious that the vibrant Welsh back division who illuminated the Six Nations with their free-spirited adventure would be heavily represented. Sure enough, half a dozen of them will be on the plane, including Stephen Jones, the form outside-half in Europe and a player admirably equipped to resist the Test-place challenge of Wilkinson, should it ever materialise. "I have no doubt that, as the tour progresses Stephen will emerge as one of the dominant characters," said one of Woodward's fellow coaches, Gareth Jenkins, who nurtured Jones at Llanelli. "He is absolutely the right man to carry the heavy load, to cope with the unique demands of a series in New Zealand." Wilkinson, the biggest box-office figure to emerge in the union game since Jonah Lomu first scared the living daylights out of all-comers during the 1995 World Cup, had been a popular tip for inclusion in the squad, despite his many and varied long-term injuries and a spectacular lack of competitive rugby stretching back to the end of the 2003. But he was not included. There again, he was not excluded either. If he recovers from his latest knee problem and proves his fitness to the satisfaction of Woodward by the middle of next month, he will become the 45th member of the squad.

Woodward said he had run this arrangement past Wilkinson, who had been fully supportive. The three confirmed outside-halves - Jones, Charlie Hodgson of England and Ronan O'Gara of Ireland - had also been consulted, and had signalled their agreement. All the same, it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that this whole Wilkinson business smacks of desperation, and has the potential to cloud the emotions and weaken the resolve of at least some of those selected in his stead. Jones is a sufficiently strong personality to rise above any amount of fuss surrounding a non-playing rival, but Hodgson and O'Gara are more fragile. Hodgson, in particular, has had his fill of Wilko-mania, and could well do without it continuing for another six weeks.

Presumably as a means of deflecting some of the attention from his absent goal-kicker, Woodward also mentioned two other World Cup winners, the Bath centre Mike Tindall and the Gloucester prop Phil Vickery, as possible additions. Both can be discounted, for neither are remotely fit. Ollie Smith, the button-bright midfielder from Leicester, is Tindall's replacement, while Vickery's busted arm has allowed Munster's John Hayes to rumble up on the rails. Hayes, can consider himself fortunate, for he is nobody's idea of a top-rank scrummager.

Among the inevitable unfortunates, Cueto and White must have spent much of yesterday in discussion with the Samaritans. Cueto's super-efficient finishing for Sale and England should have been enough to secure him a place among the wings, while White's muscular heroics for Scotland in a cause bordering on the hopeless demanded his inclusion. Woodward flatly refused to discuss the whys and wherefores of his decision in either case, and looked embarrassed at the mention of their names.

By and large, though, self-justification was unnecessary. The Lions look strong in the usual departments, most notably the back five of the scrum. No fewer than 29 of them have won 30-plus caps, and 14 of them have played more than 50 times for their respective countries. At 36, Back is the oldest player ever to be included in an initial Lions party, but with so many senior citizens alongside him, he will not look out of place. Woodward has been true to his word in choosing the most experienced squad available to him. Darby and Joan to win the series? If they do, the All Blacks will never live it down.

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