Quinnell asks the first question

Lions on tour: Welsh powerhouse and English playmaker take their chance to blow away the preconceptions
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Rugby coaches are the same the world over: they never buy a drink, they always dress in training gear at least a decade too young for them and, when questioned about the log jam of in-form players chasing Test places during major tours, they generally respond by saying: "It's a nice problem to have."

Now that the Lions have left their hideaway in Fremantle and arrived in the more bustling union community of Queensland, Graham Henry's bar and wardrobe habits will come under intense scrutiny soon enough. What is already clear is that he will not enjoy choosing between the big contenders for the crucial roles in his élite side.

Friday's 116-point gambol against the hapless amateurs of Western Australia in Perth may have been a worse mismatch than anything involving Don King and his stable of horizontal heavyweights, but the British and Irish tourists in Henry's charge still managed to throw up an awkward little selectorial poser or three, just to keep the New Zealander honest. If Henry and his back-room staff are scratching their heads over the shortage of candidates for the right-wing berth ­ the only specialist in the party, Iain Balshaw, was named as a full-back and may be required to play there in the big matches ­ they have an embarrassment of riches at centre, lock and loose forward.

By common consent, the two stand-out performers on opening night at the Waca were Will Greenwood, the Harle-quins centre, and Scott Quinnell, that barnstorming bear of a No 8 from Llanelli. Not far behind them were the two locks, the roughhouse English-man Danny Grewcock and the supremely athletic Irishman Malcolm O'Kelly. All of them complicated Henry's existence with displays of energy and skill. Quite how the coach sets about identifying the correct wood amid a forest of trees will be the chief fascination of the 20 days leading into the opening Test of the three-match series with the Wallabies.

The parallels between Greenwood and Quinnell are striking. Both toured South Africa with the Lions four years ago, and both failed to make it through the minefield. Quinnell bowed out early with a groin injury, just as he was fancying his chances of making the side for the Cape Town Test, while Greenwood, still uncapped by England but one of the most accomplished contributors to a wildly successful Lions adventure, almost died after running smack into a ferocious tackle from a Free State forward in Bloemfontein and landing awkwardly on the brick-hard going. Greenwood might well have made the side for the closing Test in Johannesburg had he stayed fit. Like Quinnell, he sees the famous red shirt as a symbol of unfinished business.

"This tour means everything to me," Quinnell said after claiming a hat-trick of characteristically forthright route-one tries on Friday night. "It's a pride thing, isn't it? The Lions are the pinnacle; the rugby they play is the best rugby a British or Irish player can experience." But if Quinnell wants to take in the view from the peak of peaks, he must persuade Henry to slice up the outstanding English back row of Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio and throw away a third of it. That is no small ask. Henry may be Quinnell's coach at national level, but Henry is no longer the Great Redeemer of Welsh union ­ at least, not until he returns from Australia. There will be no sympathy vote, no nationalistic nepotism, working in Quinnell's favour.

Before the most celebrated Stradey Park Scarlet of his generation can start thinking about the Wallabies, Henry must decide what to do with Dallaglio, whose knee injury has muddied the waters rather than cleared them. Dallaglio will almost certainly be fit in time to face Queensland next weekend in the most hazardous provincial game of the tour; if not, he will face either Australia A or New South Wales over the following seven days. If Henry decides to play his elephant-lunged Wasp in the optimum position, Quinnell can kiss goodbye to a Test start. If he shifts Dallaglio to the blindside flank, either Hill or Back will find himself out of a job. A tough call indeed.

Something similar goes for the congestion in midfield, where Greenwood's brilliance ­ he has been the form player in the squad for weeks ­ is loading a heap of pressure on Brian O'Driscoll and Mike Catt. Henry indicated on Friday night that the 28-year-old playmaker from Blackburn would be considered for Test duty in both centre positions. If Greenwood makes the cut, a big name either bites the dust or plays out of position, as O'Driscoll did against Western Australia. Given that O'Driscoll does not relish the prospect of wearing the No 15 shirt when Matthew Burke, Daniel Herbert and Steve Larkham come knocking, another difficult decision awaits the coach.

At this early juncture, there is no way of knowing who will prevail in either position ­ and that goes for the engine room, too. O'Kelly's balletic approach to the art and craft of the line-out puts him in Scott Murray's class, while Grewcock is almost as effective an enforcer as Martin Johnson, the tour captain, and probably a more potent ball-carrier.

Jeremy Davidson, a second-row revelation in Springbok country in 1997, is also in the equation. "There are going to be some bitterly disappointed middle-rowers come Test time," admitted Henry, aware that Johnson's pre-eminence leaves four quality operators pitching for one starting position.

A month ago, the smart money was on a Catt- O'Driscoll centre partnership, with Greenwood lighting up the dirt-tracker side; a Johnson-Murray axis in the darkened recesses of the set-piece; and a vote of faith in the English back row, already the longest-serving unit in the history of international rugby. Suddenly, the assumptions are floating in the warm Australian air like so much red confetti.

"The next two matches in Queensland should tell us an awful lot of what we need to know," said Henry after the unsatisfyingly one-sided opener. He had better hope so.