Thomas wings in to fill the Dallaglio vacuum with a blast of fresh air

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The Independent Online

It is the job of the Lions coaches - of Gareth Jenkins and Ian McGeechan, of Andy Robinson and Eddie O'Sullivan and, ultimately, of Sir Clive Woodward - to sort the wheat from the chaff over the next three tour matches and select a side capable of striking early against the All Blacks in Christchurch a week next Saturday.

Except there is no chaff. Not in the wing positions, for starters. Now that Gareth Thomas and Jason Robinson have pitched up in Auckland, having fulfilled their commitments to club and family respectively, any prospect of the backroom staff making easy choices has disappeared into the chill North Island air.

No fewer than nine of this squad know what it is to play Test rugby on the wing, and a 10th player, Ollie Smith of Leicester, has spent a considerable amount of time in the No 14 shirt at his club. Who to choose? Mark Cueto, the try-a-game Englishman who came to rugby late but has made up for lost time by piecing together an unprecedentedly productive scoring streak for both club and country? Shane Williams, the dynamic little tap-dancer from Morriston in Wales, who has scored 24 tries in 29 appearances for the Red Dragonhood? Denis Hickie, all fizz and pace, or his diametrically opposed colleague in the Ireland team, the Lomu-esque blunderbuss Shane Horgan? All have their supporters, yet none are counted among the favourites to face the silver-ferned brigade.

When Woodward announ-ced his squad in April, Thomas and Robinson were considered the heavy-hitting candidates for the wing positions. They probably still are, but by arriving late - the former because of a prolonged bout of club business with Toul-ouse, the latter because of the fragile pregnancy of his wife, Amanda - they have reduced their chances of making the all-important cut, though not ruined them. Both are expected to face Wellington on Wednesday, and Wellington are nobody's fools in the backs, as the well-informed and disarmingly honest Jenkins pointed out yesterday. A scratchy game against the likes of Ma'a Nonu and Lome Fa'atau could hurt them badly.

There again, both men captained their countries during this year's Six Nations Championship and are seen as example-setters by Woodward, who rather fancies himself as an authority on sporting character.

Thomas, in particular, has a role to play here, not least as a result of Lawrence Dallaglio's injury in Rotorua last weekend. The Welshman is a wholly positive, inclusive, glass-half-full kind of leader whose contribution to his country's recent Grand Slam, their first in more than a quarter of a century, did not end when he bust his thumb during the close game with France in Paris. On the field, he was top-notch. Off it, he was sensational.

He lightened the mood of a tightly focused, extraordinarily intense camp the moment he joined up with them in their coldly efficient hotel on the Auckland waterfront. "I'm not one for constant training," he pronounced, when asked whether he felt his recent Heineken Cup and French Championship activity would stand him in good stead for the rigours ahead. "I get out of bed and go training on a Monday morning because I know there is a game on the Saturday afternoon. I'm here to play, and I'm dying to start.

"How do I see my role? This is a different environment, of course; I'm playing alongside people I was brought up to play against, as physically as I know how. But I won't approach things differently. If I have something to say, I'll say it. It's not in my personality to accept things I disagree with, and there are a lot of others in this squad who see it the same way. I don't know everything about rugby, but then, neither does anyone else. I want to make as big a contribution as I can because this sort of opportunity doesn't come along every day."

It was Robinson who pointed out that "45 players won't fit into 15 shirts", and Thomas is well aware of the challenge from within, as well as from without. Now that Tom Shanklin, generally cast in the role of outside-centre with Wales, is being run on the wing by the Lions, the fight for elbow room is even greater than it might have been.

Even so, Thomas has no regrets about putting Toul-ouse, his principal employers, before the red-shirted collective he dreamed of joining as a rugby-nut kid in Ogwr. "It was a tough situation, of course," he said. "But I dearly wanted to win things with my club and, having secured the Heineken Cup, I took the field in the championship semi-final with Stade Français desperate to win and experience a French final in Paris, even though it would have denied me another week here. We lost, and it was disappointing. Still, if there is going to be a consolation in defeat, a Lions tour is as good as it gets."

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