9/17/2012

No red rose in the Lions? That's the thorny issue

 

It's back to the bad old days of the 1970s for England as Celts are set to dominate when Gatland's squad go Down Under.

Thirty-five years ago, the British and Irish Lions took the field in Wellington for the first Test against the All Blacks with one part of Britain and Ireland strikingly under-represented, that part being the biggest. Only one Englishman, the Harrogate wing Peter Squires, had found his way into a team featuring nine Welshmen – a fact so obviously embarrassing, even the doddery stiff-upper-lip brigade on the Rugby Football Union concluded that this should never happen again.

Nor has it. By the end of that series in 1977, half the pack was English: thereafter, the country's influence on the Test side grew steadily, then rapidly. The combination that beat the Wallabies in 1989 was more than 50 per cent English; during the tight series in New Zealand in 1993, the figure was two-thirds; on the three tours between 1997 and 2005 – the Clive Woodward years, more or less – the red rose remained in the ascendant. Which, scientifically speaking, was as it should have been. There is not a statistician on the planet who would not expect the largest, richest rugby-playing country of them all to punch its weight in the Lions numbers game.

Yet there was a moment in Pretoria a little over three and a half years ago when the worst of the bad old days seemed on the point of returning, largely because the England of 2009 were very nearly as bovine as the England of the mid-1970s. Meathead Revisited, you might say. Only two red-rose types, the lock Simon Shaw and the flanker Tom Croft, were picked to take on the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld and, had that ferocious contest not transformed the tourists' dressing room into a field hospital, things might have deteriorated further. Suddenly, the door to a new era of Celtic dominance had been thrown open.

Could the English find themselves contemplating some alarmingly low digits when next summer's Test series in Australia begins with what has all the makings of a momentous game at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, one of the world's great rugby arenas? You'd better believe it. As things stand, only one member of Stuart Lancaster's first-choice formation can be regarded as a warmish favourite to start that match: Dan Cole, the Leicester prop, whose central importance to the national side was recently underlined in South Africa and who should, over the next few months, just about overhaul the 31-year-old Adam Jones of Wales as the best tight-head operator in these islands.

While it is unlikely that Chris Robshaw will go the same way as other England captains of the professional era – Phil de Glanville, Steve Borthwick – by failing to make the squad (let alone the Test side), it is not inconceivable. Warren Gatland confirmed this week as head coach, in the most predictable act since the bond markets last expressed concern about the Greek economy, that he wants to keep things numerically tight: indeed, his party may be the smallest since the traditional 30-man format was abandoned after the collapse of amateurism. As few as seven specialist back-rowers could travel, and there are at least a dozen Lions-worthy loose forwards currently available.

Gatland is well aware of the delicacy of his situation: he knows from recent history how difficult it is for an incumbent national coach to be completely sure-footed in picking a route through the Lions minefield. Graham Henry, another New Zealand-born Wales coach who trod this same path in 2001, wrestled unsuccessfully with the man-management side of the job, both during and after the trek around Australia. Woodward was patently far too close to the large English contingent in All Black country four years later, even though he had cut his ties to Twickenham in spectacular fashion some months previously.

Yet if the new man recognises the perils of perceived favouritism, he will still find it awkward, on the latest available evidence, to leave more than a couple of the current Welsh first-teamers at home. If we also assume that Ireland will contribute handsomely, England and Scotland might find themselves scrapping over a dozen places maximum – and the Scots, who have not claimed a single starting place in a Lions Test since the wonderful loose-head prop Tom Smith completed his long stint in the red-shirted front row in Sydney three tours ago, expect much more of themselves this time.

The great Scottish full-back Andy Irvine, who played alongside Squires on that long-ago day in the New Zealand capital, will manage next year's tour. "As a kid playing rugby in the street, you dream of representing your country," he said this week. "And when that dream comes true, you realise there is one more peak to climb." Precious few players find their way to the Lions summit, even when the going is good. Next summer, England's finest may not find conditions to their liking.

Playing for pride: Five problem areas for Gatland

1. Outside backs

A year ago, Chris Ashton would have been a red-hot tip for a Test place and his Northampton clubmate Ben Foden would have expected to be in the shake-up. Since when, Ashton has slipped off his game (although the move to Saracens might invigorate him) while Foden is dabbling with a new position on the left wing. Wales and Ireland lord it in this area now, with Stuart Hogg, the bright young Scot, eyeing the No 15 jersey. At outside centre, Jonathan Davies of Wales is the immediate threat to Brian O'Driscoll. By comparison, Manu Tuilagi is a one-trick pony.

2. Front row

England could make an impact here. Dan Cole may be prone to conceding penalties – there were times against the Springboks in June when he could barely scratch his cauliflower ear without being pinged – but he has the unmistakable look of a Lions tight head about him. Dylan Hartley should also make the cut at hooker, if not as immediate first choice: it will then be up to him to prove he can be super-energised and completely disciplined simultaneously. At loose-head prop, Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy are currently ahead of the duo of Joe Marler and Alex Corbisiero.

3. Second row

The Lions hierarchy will think long and hard about this position, for as things stand, only Richie Gray of Scotland demands selection. Luke Charteris of Wales, so effective at last year's World Cup, could be anything or nothing in nine months' time: much depends on the quality of his French experience with Perpignan. As Paul O'Connell, the last Lions captain, is not in the first flush of youth, much interest will surround Courtney Lawes, the most potent England candidate. Sadly, consistency is not his thing – unless you're talking about his ability to injure himself at the worst moment.

4. Back row

The nightmare selection to end them all. Looking for a blind-side flanker? You could be forgiven for looking at Dan Lydiate of Wales or Stephen Ferris of Ireland – or perhaps asking another Emerald Isle forward, Sean O'Brien, to switch from No 7 to No 6 – before considering any of the English contenders. Want a No 8? Who could argue that Ben Morgan or Thomas Waldrom are better than Jamie Heaslip, the incumbent, or Toby Faletau – or, come to that, David Denton? As for the open-side berth…don't go there. Gatland has breakaways galore, all of them terrific.

5. Inside backs

England have been bereft of a decent No 12 since Will Greenwood jacked it in and the experiment with the non-kicking, non-passing Tuilagi is unlikely to yield satisfactory results. A fit Jamie Roberts (above) is miles ahead of the field: he has a full-back's kicking game and a variety of offloading options to go with his size and power. Outside-half? Jonathan Sexton or Rhys Priestland. Scrum-half? Ben Youngs has a chance if he rediscovers the best of himself, but the big boys – Mike Phillips, Conor Murray – and the button-bright Welsh youngster Lloyd Williams are on his case.