Shanklin desperate for the time of his life

Lions tour: Team comes first and last for Wales' in-form centre
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The Independent Online

Tom Shanklin knows little or nothing of the Lions' solitary successful expedition to New Zealand 34 years ago, but he is up to speed with the tours to South Africa in 1997 and Australia in 2001. His father, Jim, the former Wales centre, bought him a video of the series victory in South Africa, called Living With Lions, and four years later Shanklin Jnr watched the Lions from the spectators' enclosure.

Tom Shanklin knows little or nothing of the Lions' solitary successful expedition to New Zealand 34 years ago, but he is up to speed with the tours to South Africa in 1997 and Australia in 2001. His father, Jim, the former Wales centre, bought him a video of the series victory in South Africa, called Living With Lions, and four years later Shanklin Jnr watched the Lions from the spectators' enclosure.

"I was 16 and playing a lot of junior rugby when they toured South Africa, and what struck me was that although they worked very hard they also had a really good time. When they went to Australia I was with Saracens, and decided to follow the tour with a few mates. Richard Hill, Danny Grewcock and Scott Murray, who were team-mates at Sarries, were in the Lions party and supplied tickets for us, so we joined the punters. I'd just got my first cap, but when I looked at the Lions I thought that one day I wanted to be part of this élite team. Four years down the road and I'm pinching myself.''

Shanklin's timing was perfect. A centre by choice, he didn't have any when Wales threw a lot of money at Iestyn Harris, but when the rugby league star went back up north last year it created a midfield vacancy. Shanklin filled it like a world-beater.

After Gavin Henson, the catwalk king of Welsh rugby, had put the silver boot into England with a late match-winning penalty in Cardiff, it was Shanklin who became the centre of excellence in the latter half of Wales's Grand Slam. Outstanding performances not only shredded Scotland and Ireland but meant that when Sir Clive Woodward sat down to pick his Lions squad, Shanklin was the form midfield player.

"The papers in Wales were predicting that nearly all the Welsh team would make the party,'' Shanklin said. "I tried not to think about it. Obviously I thought I had a good chance, but when you've got so many players to choose from you never know. When I got the news it was the most brilliant feeling. It was also a huge relief.''

Shanklin is one of 10 Welsh Lions; England, fourth in the Six Nations, supply 21 with the late addition of Jonny Wilkinson; Ireland 11; and Scotland, who lost their deposit, just three. "It would have been great to see a few more of the Welsh boys make it,'' Shanklin said. "But I'm sure Clive Woodward knows what he's doing. He'll be picking a team to beat the All Blacks. He knows that some of the England players have already won in New Zealand and knows what they are capable of.''

The Lions, the largest invasion force ever to hit New Zealand, will assemble at the Vale of Glamorgan Golf and Country Club on Tuesday. They play Argentina at the Millennium Stadium a week tomorrow before flying out two days later.

They have already had a preliminary gathering. "It was everybody getting to know each other and breaking the ice,'' Shanklin said. "You know who the other people are but you don't know them personally. Although you still attend dinners after Six Nations matches the teams leave fairly quickly. You don't get a chance to mingle.''

Woodward has long been an admirer of the Tony Jacklin approach to professional sport. When Jacklin was in charge of Europe's Ryder Cup team the players, who had previously travelled at the back of the plane, were whisked around in Concorde. The results justified the cost.

"The way this whole thing has been organised is amazing,'' Shanklin said. "There's no expense spared. Clive is putting everything into this. It's obviously massively important to him, and it gets you thinking about how big this tour is.''

Most Test teams still have to share hotel rooms. Not under Woodward, neither at the Vale of Glamorgan nor in New Zealand, where partners will be allowed to join the tour. Wales, whose training headquarters is at the Vale, go in for a more egalitarian appr-oach, although players who are notorious snorers, such as the hooker Mefin Davies and the prop Gethin Jenkins, are automatically isolated.

''Not everybody wants their own room,'' Shanklin said. "And if you want to share you can do so. It can be quite boring holed up on your own. I'm buying into the business of the four nations bonding, so I prefer to share, meet different people and get to know them. It's just fantastic being part of the whole Lions ethos.''

Shanklin has scored 15 tries for Wales, most of them on the wing, although he prefers playing centre. The competition for a Test place there will be even more intense than in other positions because Brian O'Driscoll, as the captain, already has squatter's rights. Other centres in the frame apart from Shanklin are Henson, Gordon D'Arcy, Will Greenwood and Ollie Smith.

"My goal is to play centre, but if they want me to play on the wing I can,'' Shanklin said. "It's a team game. I think being versatile helps me. Clive has already said that everybody will get a chance to stake a claim. Inevitably there are going to be people who are unhappy at not making the Test team. That's always the case, and there are bound to be some injuries.''

A couple of years ago, when Wales were about a million miles from a Grand Slam, they conceded 55 points to the All Blacks in Hamilton. "I would love the chance to bury a few of those demons,'' Shanklin said. Jim Shanklin, who had considerable success with Wales but was never a Lion, will be on tour, leading a group of supporters.

Woodward has more coaches than he can shake a stick at, and it is possible that Mike Ruddock will join the Lions after taking Wales on a tour of America. If the lads are in need of a singsong, Ruddock might want to take his guitar.

"After we'd beaten Ireland for the Slam we sprayed all the champagne. There was nothing to drink,'' Shanklin said. "We were taken to Brains Brewery and at about three in the morning we went back to the Vale, where Mike got his guitar out and did his Elvis impression. You don't have to ask him twice. You've got to enjoy these moments. They don't come along too often."

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