Although Sir Clive Woodward has more lions to choose from than can be found roaming the Serengeti, it is the one he cannot train his sights on that would have been the natural leader of the pack. Martin Johnson, having sated his appetite for Test rugby but not testimonials, will be stalking Twickenham for the last time on 4 June in a benefit match against a Jonah Lomu XV. While Lomu hopes to relaunch his career after a kidney transplant, Johnson will be consigning his boots to the rugby museum.
On the day that supporters are expected to give plenty to the Johnson retirement fund, the Lions will be opening their tour of New Zealand against the Bay of Plenty in Rotorua. Johnson, who captained Leicester to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup last week, has not followed the example of Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back in announcing retirement from England while informing Woodward that they are available for one last safari.
In spite of England's erratic form in the Six Nations, in which they finished behind Wales, France and Ireland, Woodward will tomorrow lean heavily on those nearest and dearest to him when he announces his Lions squad of 44. No Johnson to reprise his captain's role of the last two tours, to South Africa and Australia, where series were won and lost, but a number of Red Rose candidates who not only won the World Cup but pulled off perhaps an even more significant triumph.
When England beat New Zealand 15-13 in Wellington in 2003 it was made all the more memorable because for a while they held the All Blacks at bay with 13 men. During an heroic rearguard, Dallaglio and Back were sent to the sin-bin but, with Jonny Wilkinson kicking all his side's points, England recorded a famous victory. Assuming Woodward would quite like the comfort blanket of having players around him who know what it's like to win a Test in New Zealand, the return from injury of Richard Hill opens up the possibility of a back-row reunion with Dallaglio and Back. This would not appeal to Ian McGeechan, one of Woodward's coaches, who says that once you are out of international rugby there is no return.
The competition for back-row places is intense. Martin Corry and Lewis Moody will be named, along with Michael Owen and Martyn Williams. Simon Taylor is another certainty, and others in the frame are Ryan Jones, Jason White, Joe Worsley and Colin Charvis, who today returns for Newcastle against Worcester after being out for three months with a foot injury.
If Woodward is spoilt for choice in the back row, where the All Blacks are traditionally world-class, it is the composition of the front row that has caused him to stock up on the midnight oil. Julian White, Phil Vickery and Tom Smith are injured, and if they are unavailable the Lions are seriously short of building blocks. The Irish front row holds no appeal; Gethin Jenkins, the young Wales prop, is a certainty, along with Graham Rowntree and Matt Stevens; and Adam Jones and Duncan Jones have a chance.
If Woodward is deprived of out-and-out scrummagers he may have to go for mobility. The prospect of playing ball-carrying props like Jenkins and Stevens could define the whole Lions approach. Steve Thompson remains favourite to wear the Lions No 2 jersey although his accuracy at the line-out remains a big worry. Robin McBryde, the Wales understudy to Mefin Davies, presents a bigger physical challenge, which appeals to Woodward. I would also take George Chuter of Leicester, who is having a fine season. No other hooker could have scored the try he produced against Wasps in the Heineken Cup. It showed extraordinary skill, but the Scotland captain, Gordon Bulloch, will probably be preferred.
In the second row Paul O'Connell, Danny Grewcock and Ben Kay have had their passports stamped and Woodward has also been looking at Brent Cockbain, the Australian who played a part in Wales's Grand Slam. Scott Murray and Malcolm O'Kelly? Maybe, but they have been fairly quiet. Donncha O'Callaghan, Steve Borthwick and Robert Sidoli will have been considered.
The half-back pairing will be as important as the line-up in the front row. Wilkinson is still not ready for the Premiership. The England captain, in name only, has not played for his country since his World Cup-winning drop goal in Sydney in November 2003. If he is selected, and breaks down again, he can be replaced, but that would not send out the right signals. It is time to think the unthinkable and leave him at home. Woodward is reluctant to do so not only because of his obvious debt to the standoff but because the alternative No 10s do not set the world alight.
Stephen Jones and his partner, Dwayne Peel, appear to be the Test partnership, but neither Ireland nor Scotland bring much to this particular mix. It has allowed Harry Ellis and Andy Goode to enter the equation, while the experience of Matt Dawson, a brilliant Lion in South Africa in 1997, is a tempting commodity although this could be a trip too far. Charlie Hodgson's form in the Six Nations means he now plays with a question mark, and David Humphreys, the Ireland second string, has become a contender.
Brian O'Driscoll is the obvious choice for captain and Gavin Henson, not least because he can kick long-range goals, and Tom Shanklin will also travel. Then there are Jamie Noon, Olly Barkley (who can play stand-off if required), Ollie Smith and Will Greenwood, who has timed his recovery from injury to perfection.
In England's troubled season, Jason Robinson, who found the captaincy a burden, went off the boil at full-back. He can be switched to the wing, allowing Gareth Thomas to wear No 15. There will surely be a nod for Josh Lewsey, Mark Cueto, Geordan Murphy and Chris Paterson.
Iain Balshaw may be preferred to Kevin Morgan, which would be a mistake, and another mistake would be to omit Shane Williams. The unconvinced keep asking the same question: how can the little Wales wing be expected to counter the likes of Joe Rokococo? As they both play on the left flank he wouldn't, and Williams invariably brings something to the party.
Remember Dafydd James? The wing, then of Bridgend, was expected to play a minor role on the Lions tour of Australia four years ago, but emerged as one of the stars. While Woodward's Test team will contain a number of familiar faces, it will also have players who will fall into the James category, the gatecrasher who had a ball.Reuse content