Has McGeechan got it right?
April 21, 2009
McGeechan has put his faith in lock Paul O'Connell to lead by example © Getty Images
The waiting is finally over. Lions coach Ian McGeechan has revealed the 2009 British & Irish Lions that will travel to South Africa later this year - but has he got it right?
The 10-match tour is guaranteed to be a gruelling and physical test to rival any in the Lions' illustrious history - a fact not lost on McGeechan and his coaching team who have picked a 37-man squad that looks ready to meet that challenge.
Ireland lock Paul O'Connell will lead the tourists and will provide the formidable presence both on and off the field of which McGeechan is such a fan. But whereas the selection of the Munster stalwart was widely predicted, there were a few surprises in Tuesday's announcement.
There were no places for a trio of Six Nations captains - Wales' Ryan Jones, England's Steve Borthwick and Scotland's Mike Blair - who rightly pay for their indifferent form in this year's competition. The armband may have offered them a lifeline on the national stage but without that they are left languishing and not one of them can really argue.
However, a plane ticket is on its way to England's Ugo Monye, Ireland's Keith Earls and Wales Leigh Halfpenny. All three have the potential to bring some flair to what will largely be a war of attrition. Age and experience are no barrier when you are looking for a way to de-rail the world champions.
Brave calls one and all but as we were reminded - when it comes to selection there is no countries, no captains and no favouritism. McGeechan assured us he would be picking on form - and not reputation - and while he appears to have been largely true to his word there are those who can rightly feel a little hard done by - England's Delon Armitage and Tom Croft would head this queue - and those who can consider themselves a little lucky - Wales' Shane Williams and Andy Powell.
Let's just hope they haven't used up all their luck as the Lions are going to need more than their fair share when they touch down in South Africa - such is the magnitude of their task. Defence may win matches, and the make-up of the squad goes some way to underline that fact, but the Lions will also need to nurture a cutting edge if they are to conjure an historic victory over the Springboks.
We will have to wait to see if McGeechan has got it right, but right now there appears to be plenty of cause for hope with an attractive blend of brute force, experience and flair at his disposal.
But at the moment they are just a group of talented individuals that McGeechan must craft into a world-class team. Time is not on his side with the squad set to embark on their demanding schedule next month that will culminate with a three-Test series. Add into the mix the limited preparation time they will have before they leave and three games at altitude awaiting them in South Africa then you get some idea of the task facing the elite tourists.
Do the Lions have the players to emulate the victorious tourists of 1974 and 1997?
2009 British & Irish Lions:
Byrne has shown he can be a devastating attacking threat as well as an assured defensive presence and will be the favourite to claim the No.15 Test jersey. Kearney, like Byrne, possesses a big kicking game that will prove a valuable asset. Armitage, arguably England's form player of the last six months, is extremely unlucky to miss out.
Williams gets the nod despite a lack of form due to his big game experience while the 20-year-old Halfpenny's versatility and dazzling performance in the Anglo-Welsh Cup Final saw him cement a place - maybe at Armitage's expense. Two more of Ireland's Grand Slam-winning squad are also worthy of their places. Maybe a little light on experience.
O'Driscoll's name will be the second on the team sheet after O'Connell's. The No.12 jersey is there to be won. Flutey is also likely to provide cover at fly-half, while the exciting Earls could also deputise elsewhere in the backline. All are likely to relish the physical challenge that awaits them.
These two are set to battle it out for the Test spot in the matches leading up to first Test. Jones is probably in possession of the No.10 shirt at the moment but all could change. Flutey may also get a run in an attempt to safeguard the Celtic duo. No chance for England's Jonny Wilkinson or Toby Flood.
Both Phillips and Ellis have battled back from serious injury to book their places on the tour while O'Leary's late flourish saw him get the nod over Scotland's Mike Blair.
Strength in depth - with Jenkins and Murray leading the way - and it will be needed as the Lions front up to their hosts.
Surely this is an area of concern for the Lions due to form of the leading contenders. One will need to step up to the challenge.
O'Connell and Wyn Jones are set to join forces in a bid to disrupt South Africa's all-conquering Botha-Matfield partnership but in Hines, Shaw and O'Callaghan they have more than able deputies. No room here for England skipper Steve Borthwick.
Powell appears to have been selected on the back of his form in the autumn. Williams and Wallace are clearly world-class but competing for the same shirt. Expect Worsley to be handed the 'tree-cutting' duties and Heaslip given the chance to display his running game on the hard grounds of SA. Prepare for some ferocious battles in the loose and at the breakdown.
There remains one feint hope for those omitted but it will only come from the misfortune of another. A stand-by list, featuring two or three reserves for each position, will be put together but not published and with an average of seven injuries on the most recent Lions tours at least one or two players can expect a late call up from national duty or their summer holidays. Again they must play the waiting game.
There is definitely the makings of a world-class international XV amongst the squad and on reflection it looks like McGeechan has got it just about right in terms of selections. There are maybe a couple of questions marks but who are we to doubt a man with the experience of six Lions tours (two as a player, four as a coach) to call upon?
All it requires now is those struggling to play themselves into form, others to find their feet on the high veldt and for McGeechan to work some more Lions magic. And if anyone can - McGeechan can.