Woodward courts Welsh fury as Henson misses out on Test selection

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The Independent Online

Gavin Henson has more than a touch of the bombshell about him, what with his fancy hairdo and his state-of-the-art sporting accoutrements, not to mention his celebrity-fuelled love life. Yesterday, he found himself on the wrong end of a bombshell of the selectorial variety when he was named in the British and Irish Lions' team for tomorrow's match with Southland in Invercargill - the rugby equivalent of a trip to nowhere.

Gavin Henson has more than a touch of the bombshell about him, what with his fancy hairdo and his state-of-the-art sporting accoutrements, not to mention his celebrity-fuelled love life. Yesterday, he found himself on the wrong end of a bombshell of the selectorial variety when he was named in the British and Irish Lions' team for tomorrow's match with Southland in Invercargill - the rugby equivalent of a trip to nowhere.

His demotion - it could not be viewed in any other light, given Sir Clive Woodward's public insistence that none of the Southland-bound party would be considered for this weekend's opening Test against the All Blacks - came as a considerable surprise, not least because the head coach had only recently gone out of his way to praise Henson's contribution, both in training and in his starting appearances against Bay of Plenty and Wellington. It also came as a rude awakening to the Welsh rugby community, many of whom are likely to see Woodward's decision in terms of an Anglocentric conspiracy.

The Welsh, still basking in the afterglow of their triumphant Grand Slam campaign in this season's Six Nations Championship, were less than happy with a number of other developments. Three more of their number - the wing-cum-centre Tom Shanklin, the open-side flanker Martyn Williams and the No 8 Michael Owen - were also cast among the midweek dirt-trackers. Each of them had harboured realistic ambitions of a place in the Test squad when the coaching staff convened to consider their options yesterday.

By cutting Henson adrift, Woodward left open the possibility of Jonny Wilkinson and Stephen Jones, two career outside-halves, carving up the stand-off and inside-centre roles between them. This arrangement has not been cast in stone, for Will Greenwood, the Harlequins centre who missed so much of the last domestic season with injury problems, has sneaked up on the rails after a try-scoring performance full of attacking ingenuity against Otago two days ago. Even so, the mere possibility of running Wilkinson out of position constitutes a gamble of unusual proportions.

Indeed, it could well be the biggest gamble of Woodward's career - a punt that might, if it went wrong, hand the All Blacks this weekend's Test on a silver platter. Rather like Jason Robinson, who also made the élite cut despite a chronic absence of anything resembling form, Wilkinson has not exactly set New Zealand ablaze with the brilliance of his rugby to date. It is understandable that Woodward should favour his World Cup-winning marksman for the supreme accuracy of his goal-kicking, but Henson is no mug when it comes to bisecting the sticks with an oval-shaped ball. The Welshman must be distraught.

Woodward made no bones about the significance of his selection. "We have a strong squad, and the strength of the side picked for Southland shows that," he said. "I have made it clear that the players selected for this game will not feature in the first Test, but it does not mean they do not have the opportunity to play in the second and third Tests. That is underlined by the history of Lions tours down the years. I want these players to keep challenging for Test places as the tour goes on."

One of his principal lieutenants, the experienced Lions player and coach Ian McGeechan, said this most awkward of selections had been an "on-going process" and stressed the importance of convincing the players that due recognition had been taken of performances on tour, as well as of received wisdom and reputation. There was evidence of this in the promotion of the young Welsh No 8 Ryan Jones on the strength of his blinding effort against Otago. But Wilkinson? Robinson? In terms of the Christchurch Test, these men owe virtually everything to reputation.

Two players, Shanklin and the Sale prop Andrew Sheridan, have been struggling with injury, which probably explains their presence on the bench tomorrow. Others - the likes of Denis Hickie, Ronan O'Gara, Gareth Cooper, Andy Titterrell and John Hayes - were always likely to see action in Invercargill, having failed to push themselves forward for consideration. Williams is very definitely unfortunate, for he has made an intelligent contribution thus far, while Lewis Moody's suspect fitness has cost him dear. Owen, meanwhile, effectively undermined his own Test claims by flying back to Wales last week to attend the birth of his second daughter.

There are still several either-ors in terms of the Test line-up - certainly, there is nothing definite about the precise make-up of the inside-back axis or the front and back rows. This much is obvious, though. Henson, the slayer of England at the Millennium Stadium back in February, has fallen victim to the old enemy on this, the most high-profile of tours. Were it not for his bad luck, he would have no luck at all.

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS (v Southland in Invercargill tomorrow, kick-off 8.10am BST; Live Sky Sports 1): G Murphy (Leicester and Ireland); M Cueto (Sale and England), O Smith (Leicester and England), G Henson (Ospreys and Wales), D Hickie (Leinster and Ireland); R O'Gara (Munster and Ireland), G Cooper (Newport-Gwent Dragons and Wales); M Stevens (Bath and England), A Titterrell (Sale and England), J Hayes (Munster and Ireland), S Shaw (Wasps and England), D O'Callaghan (Munster and Ireland), L Moody (Leicester and England), M Williams (Cardiff Blues and Wales), M Owen (Newport-Gwent Dragons and Wales, capt). Replacements: G Bulloch (Glasgow and Scotland), A Sheridan (Sale and England), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets and Ireland), C Cusiter (Borders and Scotland), C Hodgson (Sale and England), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues and Wales), G D'Arcy (Leinster and Ireland).

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