Welsh exploits complicate Lions' forward planning

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The Independent Online

I am no believer in the closed shop, but I do not think writers who do not know the first thing about rugby should lightly be let loose on the subject. This is what has been happening in the past few days, both before and after Wales winning the Grand Slam. The coverage was, I suppose, inevitable and, up to a point, touching: but it managed to be a compendium of error all the same.

I am no believer in the closed shop, but I do not think writers who do not know the first thing about rugby should lightly be let loose on the subject. This is what has been happening in the past few days, both before and after Wales winning the Grand Slam. The coverage was, I suppose, inevitable and, up to a point, touching: but it managed to be a compendium of error all the same.

Thus, in the Independent titles alone (though I am glad to say, outside the sports pages) I saw Gavin Henson described as Wales captain, when it should have been Michael Owen, standing in for the injured Gareth Thomas. Barry John was alleged to have played in the Grand Slam team of 1978 when he had been retired for six whole years, having been succeeded by Phil Bennett.

Most readers, coming fresh to the subject, would also have assumed that, before that season, Wales were winning Grand Slams every other year. In fact they won them in 1971 and 1976. Before then they had won the Grand Slam in 1950 and 1952. Before 1950 there had been a gap of 39 years going back to 1911 - 12 years longer than the period since 1978.

The moral is that the achievement of the Welsh team on Saturday was, if anything, greater than most commentators have supposed: not only because of the disappointments of recent years (though these were real enough) but because Welsh rugby was not, even before then, a parade of unvarying triumph.

Moreover, the teams of the 1970s did not always or usually chuck the ball about in quite the way the present lot do. They were often saved by their forwards and by Bennett's boot rather than his sidestep. The team the present Wales XV resembles are more the London Welsh outfit of the early 1970s. They did, of course, influence the Wales team of the same era - not least because there was an overlap of membership - but they played in a style that was more free.

It often happens that Wales have a good season immediately before a Lions Tour. In 1977, for that unhappy tour of New Zealand managed by John Dawes, Wales had too many representatives; players who were lucky to be in the Wales side, let alone in a Lions party.

Sir Clive Woodward, it is often forgotten, was a Lion himself, going on two tours. In 1980 he played in two Tests against South Africa. Dawes had played in that greatest of Lions sides, in New Zealand in 1971. I do not think Sir Clive will make the mistakes made by his predecessor.

Even so, there is a certain difficulty about his appointment. It came about, clearly, on the assumption that England would be a dominant force in the Six Nations Championship. The present England head coach, Andy Robinson, is accompanying him in a subordinate capacity, as is Gareth Jenkins, the Llanelli Scarlets coach. There are no other senior Welsh representatives, because the Welsh Rugby Union, reasonably enough, wants Mike Ruddock and his assistants to devote themselves exclusively to the interest of the Wales team.

It always seemed to me that Sir Clive talked one game but played - or ensured that his charges played - another kind of game entirely. He might reply that he did not have the players to produce the sort of rugby he wanted and had to make the best of what he had, which he duly did, with spectacular results, in terms of brute success. But somehow I doubt whether Sir Clive wants anything very different.

It seems that 44 players are going to New Zealand, presumably because Sir Clive wants a Test 22 and a midweek 22. Being a Lion will be like receiving a life peerage or gaining a Ph.D. - there are so many that the only distinction lies in not being one of them.

Besides, though scrum-halves in particular go down like skittles on these tours, and Sir Clive will presumably take four of them, there will be certain players who will be lucky to put their boots on, except for training purposes, and will have to be satisfied with getting drunk, chasing girls and writing newspaper columns.

Despite my concerns about the whole exercise, I shall nevertheless be grateful for a few English forwards. My Test team: J Lewsey (England); J Robinson (England), B O'Driscoll (Ireland), G Henson (Wales), S Williams (Wales); S Jones (Wales), D Peel (Wales); G Jenkins (Wales), S Thompson (England), J White (England), P O'Connell (Ireland), M O'Kelly (Ireland), L Dallaglio (England), M Williams (Wales), M Corry (England).

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