With Irish rugby’s marquee year set to continue into the summer, Killian Woods analyses the Lions squad.
In the minds of Irish rugby professionals and fans alike, the ideal situation would be for this season to never end. With Ireland winning the Grand Slam, an all-Irish Heineken Cup semi-final and the almost inevitable crowning of Munster as Magners League champions, Irish sides could conceivably win every competition they have played in (except for Connaught’s perennially feeble assault on the Challenge Cup).
Last Tuesday afternoon, the announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad going to South Africa just added to what has already been a remarkable year for Irish rugby. In all, 14 Irish players were named in Ian McGeechan’s squad with Paul O’Connell being named captain.
Looking at the squad, it is hard not to notice a trend in McGeechan’s selection. It is a common cliché, but the Lions’ coach has gone for the ‘big hitters’ and the players with a huge physical presence. With the likes of Nathan Hines, Joe Worsley and Ugo Monye to give his side an intimidating edge all over the field.
Like all Lions squads, there was a degree of shock in certain corners of the British Isles. The inclusion of Keith Earls, though merited, was a surprise due to his lack of experience, while the old legs of Alan Quinlan were not expected to be chosen over the likes of Tom Croft.
It goes to show how much competition there was for this Lions squad when the captains of England, Scotland and Wales failed to make the cut. Their form throughout the Six Nations was the main reason for their omission, though time should not be spent lamenting those who failed to make the grade.
There are more selection headaches ahead for the Lions’ management, as decisions on the starting 15 have to be made. Paul O’Connell is a certainty, though looking through the squad it is hard to find another name set in stone as first choice.
The most intriguing battles will be observed at fullback and flanker as Ian McGeechan looks to construct his team. The contest for that No.15 jersey has been building all season between Robert Kearney and Welsh full back Lee Byrne. Both players have unique strengths in particular aspects of their game.
“It is a common cliché, but the Lions coach has gone for the ‘big hitters’ and the players with a huge physical presence”
Kearney possesses a bigger physical presence than Byrne. However, the Welshman’s attacking capabilities outweigh those of Kearney’s.
Similarly at flanker, crucial calls will have to be made. On current form, David Wallace would have to start as open-side flanker. Though, at blindside it is not such a straightforward call. The performances of Joe Worsley would rival any of his compatriots and with Martyn Williams continuing his ever-lasting form and offering an option despite his relative inexperience at that side of the scrum, Stephen Ferris will have his work cut out come the summer.
Since the squad was announced discerning opinions have voiced concern on the lack of fly halves selected. An injury to either O’Gara or Stephen Jones could leave McGeechan short of cover in a pivotal position forcing him to call up an emergency replacement.
However, the standoff duo is subjected to huge physical pressure in every game they play. None more than O’Gara, who is consistently targeted by opposing teams, who aim to nullify his impact on the game. Yet time after time O’Gara continues to stand tall and absorb the pressure.
Analysing the squad, it appears that there is no group of individuals better equipped to beat the current world champions over three tests. Yet even before the squad was announced, the Springboks are quietly confident that another whitewash is on the cards. Though, it will not be a lack of quality that could turn this Lions tour into a second successive disaster.
When the southern hemisphere teams came within one game of whitewashing the whole of the northern hemisphere, it was the ELV’s (Experimental Law Variations) that held us back. The likes of South Africa just seem better equipped to play by these rules.
Now Ian McGeechan must decide whether to challenge them at their own game or bring them down to our level. It will not be good enough come June to kick possession away and be afraid to take the ball into contact at fear of a turnover.
Reflecting on the choice of captain, it appears to be a very wise decision. McGeechan is looking for any psychological edge as he intends to use O’Connell’s size as an intimidation tactic. McGeechan will also be hopeful the Munster man can emulate the charismatic display of the last successful Lions captain Martin Johnson as he attempts to break this losing streak.
The squad reflects season long form and unlike previous occasions, it does not contain players who are recovering from injuries, although Tomás O’Leary’s suspected broken ankle looks likely to see him replaced.
These are the best 37 players eligible to play for the Lions. In the words of Joe Worsley, it is a squad of players designed to “knock ‘em down”. Naturally the Lion hunts a Springbok. Let’s just hope these roles are not reversed in the summer.
Predicted Lions Starting XV:
Lee Byrne, Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Ugo Moyne, Ronan O’Gara, Mike Phillips, Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell, Alun-Wyn Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Jerry Flannery, Euan Murray.