Versatility but too little flexibility

Chris Rea worries that the Lions' lack of expertise with the boot will cost them dear
Click to follow
The Independent Online
If the 35 Lions, including six Tigers, turned out to contain a number of surprise entrants, there is no doubting the macho message sent out by Fran Cotton last week. Whether or not the selection of Martin Johnson as captain was an attempt to recreate 1974, when Willie John McBride's unbeaten side left their imprint - physically and mentally - on a shattered nation, that is how the selection will be perceived in South Africa.

There is nothing wrong with this, indeed without physical and mental strength the Lions won't have a prayer in South Africa, as any player who has toured there will tell you. The circumstances, however, are very different now to 1974 when, with respect to the side considered by many to be the finest of all Lions, the opposition were in complete disarray. So pitifully short of quality players were they that they resorted to playing a flanker at scrum-half. Twenty-three years on, the South Africans are world champions and have, in Joost van der Westhuizen, the world's finest scrum-half.

Those who argue that the captain's job on Lions tours involves little more than breezing along to a press conference, spouting a few witticisms at the after-match functions and delivering some passionate words before taking the field have no conception of the relentless pressures on a touring captain. Nor do they know their history. The experience has broken more than one heart and, given a second chance, Michael Campbell-Lamerton, Phil Bennett and Ciaran Fitzgerald would, in all probability, refuse it.

There are three serious concerns about Johnson's appointment. The first is that, if he has not gone so far in public as to say that he doesn't want the job, nothing he has done or said has suggested that he really does want it. The second is his rank inexperience in this role. He has not the faintest idea of how to play the media game, which can often be far more dangerous than anything on the field. If things go badly for the Lions the images transmitted from South Africa might not be dissimilar to those of England's cricket captain in Zimbabwe, which would be calamitous not only for the Lions but for Johnson himself, whose first priority as one of the key members of the side must be to maintain a consistent level of good form and have as few distractions as possible.

This brings us to the third and most important problem - Johnson's present form. There is no question that he is still the first name on the team sheet and that his place in the Test side is as secure now as it was at the start of the season when he ruled majestically over every line-out and was the perfect model of an athletic tight forward. Just recently, however, he has shown signs of physical and mental exhaustion. Against Gloucester last week it was only his pride and the fact that Leicester were in extreme danger of losing that propelled him back into the action. He urgently requires some rest and relaxation but with Leicester's commitments stretching until the last day of this interminable season he is likely to be the principal victim of his club's success and of an unsustainable playing schedule.

Unlike some of the other selections, however, Johnson's appointment was no surprise. The decision was made some time ago - as far back as England's game against Ireland rumours were being floated. That was the day when Tony Underwood played the game of his life for his country yet it was not enough to force entry into the initial squad of 62. Two weeks later he went into an expensive trance against the French, Leflamand scored and that, we assumed, would be the end of Tony the ex-Tiger. His selection is a little baffling, but is due to Simon Geoghegan's failure to satisfy anyone, least of all himself, about his fitness.

The same is the case with Colin Charvis who, although not in the squad, was certainly in the selectors' minds. No one has championed the cause of Neil Back more strenuously than I but, despite the fact that under Bob Dwyer at Leicester he is back to his best form, there must be some concern that he will remain upright for long enough in South Africa to make an effective contribution. Speed over the ground is one thing, bulk is another and in South Africa there are legions of players who offer both. On the other hand Back's workrate and creative skills in the face of the tightly organised defences could be crucial.

Herein, though, lies the Lions' conundrum. When the All Blacks, Springboks, Wallabies and, for that matter, England take the field we know more or less how they are going to play the game. At the moment no one knows the style the Lions are likely to adopt. Gregor Townsend at fly-half will be an entirely different player to Paul Grayson. The same goes for Howley and Healey at scrum-half, Back and Hill at open side, Miller and Quinnell at No 8 and Jenkins and Stimpson at full-back.

The party has an admirable element of versatility but an ominous lack of flexibility. Goal-kicking will determine the selection of the Test side, but equally important will be the tactical kicking. The bomb is a potent weapon on the high veld and even with the welcome presence of David Alred there must be doubts as to whether Townsend, potentially the Lions' most explosive attacking force will become proficient enough as a kicker from the hand to make the Test team. Upon this will depend the Lions' style and strategy.

When he returned from the triumphant tour to South Africa in 1974 Cotton wrote: "The major factor in the Lions' success was the forwards absolute dominance in the set piece ... the psychological advantage of going forward." The game has moved on since then and no longer does the set piece play so crucial a part. Nevertheless, in the psychological warfare, Cotton may well feel that he has at least got his retaliation in first. But is that sound I hear the rattling of sabres or the knocking of knees?

Comments