Woodward's faith centres on Wilkinson

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The Independent Online

Sir Clive Woodward would rather crawl the length and breadth of All Black country on a carpet of broken glass than go into a major Test match without the safety net of Jonny Wilkinson's peerless goal-kicking to break his fall, so it came as no great shock when the Lions coach selected his principal source of points for Saturday's first Test against New Zealand.

What was surprising was his decision to select Wilkinson at inside centre rather than outside-half - the equivalent of asking Steve Harmison to bowl medium-pace seamers rather than head-high howitzers.

Wilkinson last donned the No 12 jersey in anger six years ago, when England botched a Grand Slam opportunity by losing to Wales at Wembley in the last match of the old Five Nations Championship. Within weeks of that calamity, he was England's first-choice stand-off - a position he held up to and including the 2003 World Cup, following which he aggravated a long-running neck condition and was forced to undergo career-saving surgery.

Woodward's determination to play the Newcastle captain despite his lack of form - arm and knee injuries punctuated Wilkinson's most recent domestic campaign - means the inside-back axis at the heart of Wales' Grand Slam triumph has been dismantled.

Stephen Jones, who impressed the head coach during the Six Nations series, will play at stand-off, outside the brilliant, young scrum-half Dwayne Peel. But Wilkinson's presence has effectively scotched Gavin Henson's hopes of a first Lions cap.

"I took full note of Gavin's performance against Southland on Tuesday night and I could still change this selection before the weekend if I had a mind to do so, but I have no intentions in that direction," Woodward said.

"I did reconsider Gavin's claims in light of the game in Invercargill, because he has done everything right and nothing wrong on this tour. But in the cold light of day, I feel happy with my initial pick.

"We could argue about this all day, but I have to start with 15 players and it's down to me to think it through rationally and make my call."

The coach was honest enough to admit that he took account of reputation as well as current form. "There was a little bit of both in the final decision," he said. "Of course, you take note of what you're seeing as the tour progresses. But you also consider what you already know about individual players. In the end, it is about choosing the people who perform best under pressure."

That last point has cost Steve Thompson, the World Cup-winning England hooker, a starting place. Woodward has plumped for Shane Byrne, of Ireland, on account of his greater accuracy as a line-out thrower. Line-out concerns also ensured that Ben Kay, a specialist middle jumper, would start ahead of the more abrasive Danny Grewcock, while Richard Hill and Martin Corry were preferred to the less experienced Ryan Jones, of Wales, in the back row, despite the latter's astonishing contribution to the victory over Otago last weekend.

If there was another surprise, it was the decision to run Jason Robinson at full-back and shift Josh Lewsey to the left wing. It is the prevailing view among the England coaching staff that Robinson is better suited to the wing role he performed to great effect with the Lions in Australia four years ago. Woodward takes the opposite view, however, and this is very much his team. If there was unanimity on selection, it was because there was only one real selector.

As ever, it was the Wilkinson issue that generated most debate. There are those who believe he is now in sacred cow territory - irreplaceable, undroppable, almost uncriticisable. He has precious little momentum behind him; many who saw him play against Wellington eight days ago could not remember a less authoritative performance. On the other hand, the value of his marksmanship is great indeed. No one expects the Lions to run round the All Blacks, but they may just run over them and make them suffer with the boot.

There is some logic to his selection, hard though it is on Henson. What makes no sense at all is the decision to omit the Welshman from the squad altogether, for his presence on the bench would give the Lions the security of an extra kicking option. As things stand, the tourists' range will be reduced by a good 30 per cent if Wilkinson is injured. It simply does not add up.

Meanwhile, the New Zealanders have recalled Marty Holah, the Maori flanker at the heart of the tourists' defeat in Hamilton 12 days ago, from the Junior All Blacks' tour of Australia as cover for Richie McCaw, who is suffering from back trouble. However, McCaw is expected to recover in time to play on Saturday. Worse luck for the Lions.

Teams for First Test at Jade Stadium, Christchurch

New Zealand

15 L MacDonald (Canterbury)

14 D Howlett (Auckland)

13 T Umaga (Wellington, capt)

12 A Mauger (Canterbury)

11 S Sivivatu (Waikato)

10 D Carter (Canterbury)

9 J Marshall (Canterbury)

1 T Woodcock (North Harbour)

2 K Mealamu (Auckland)

3 C Hayman (Otago)

4 C Jack (Canterbury)

5 A Williams (Auckland)

6 J Collins (Wellington)

7 R McCaw (Canterbury)

8 R So'oialo (Wellington)

REPLACEMENTS: D Whitcombe (Auckland); G Somerville (Canterbury); J Gibbes; S Lauaki B Kelleher (all Waikato); M Muliaina (Auckland); R Gear (Nelson Bays).

British & Irish Lions

15 J Robinson (England)

14 J Lewsey (England)

13 B O'Driscoll (Ireland, capt)

12 J Wilkinson (England)

11 G Thomas (Wales)

10 S Jones (Wales)

9 D Peel (Wales)

1 G Jenkins (Wales)

2 S Byrne (Ireland)

3 J White (England)

4 P O'Connell (Ireland)

5 B Kay (England)

6 R Hill (England)

7 N Back (England)

8 M Corry (England)

REPLACEMENTS: S Thompson; G Rowntree; D Grewcock (all England); R Jones (Wales); M Dawson; W Greenwood (both England); S Horgan (Ireland).

Lions gambles

* 1955: Dickie Jeeps v South Africa, first Test, Johannesburg

Jeeps was an uncapped English scrum-half when Cliff Morgan, the great Welsh stand-off, argued for his inclusion. Selected to face the Springboks, Jeeps ended up playing all four Tests.

Result: a success

* 1983: Ciaran Fitzgerald v New Zealand (whole series)

Peter Wheeler should have toured; Colin Deans should have played in the Tests. Instead, the selectors backed an outclassed Irish hooker on account of his leadership skills. The consequences were severe.

Result: a failure

* 1993: Jason Leonard v New Zealand, second Test, Wellington

The Lions had got their front-five selections wrong and were without a decent tight-head prop. Leonard, a loose-head, was switched and performed magnificently.

Result: a success

* 1997 - Paul Wallace v South Africa, first Test, Cape Town

Leonard had been favourite for the Tests, but Ian McGeechan brilliantly countered the scrummaging threat posed by the massive Os du Randt by choosing the diminutive Irishman.

Result: a success

* 2001 - Neil Back v Australia, second Test, Melbourne

Graham Henry opted to include Back, who had missed the first Test victory, on the flank ahead of Martin Corry. The Lions' line-out missed a beat and the Wallabies won a tight game.

Result: a failure