Peter Bills: Munster factor may yet stifle the Lions roar
Have the 2009 Lions been overly seduced by the achievements of a strong provincial team?
Have they been too influenced by Munster’s exploits in the Heineken Cup? Will many of those Munstermen be exposed once they get to South Africa and slip on the famous jersey of the British and Irish Lions and confront the mighty Springboks?
These were some of the questions being asked in London after Tuesday's announcement of the 37-man squad. Irishman Paul Wallace, who was the Lions tight head in the winning 1997 series against the Springboks, said: “I wonder if the selectors have been too influenced by Munster’s successes.
“I think a few of the Irish boys might be fortunate to have been included. I certainly think a player like Tom Croft, the England back row man, is very unfortunate to have missed out.”
To have chosen 34-year-old Munster player Alan Quinlan ahead of England tyro Croft, who can play both second row and back row, looks a strange decision. There are other oddities, too. No 8 Adam Powell gets the nod even though he didn’t even make the starting line-up for his club Cardiff’s recent Heineken Cup quarter-final against Toulouse. Powell’s form dipped alarmingly during the Six Nations, after he’d played superbly in the autumn internationals, against the southern hemisphere nations.
Similarly, scrum-half Harry Ellis has struggled to make Leicester’s starting line-up ahead of Frenchman Julien Dupuy yet he has made the Lions tour. I should think Scottish scrum-half Mike Blair is desolate at the decision.
There are a few other players who might consider themselves unfortunate to have missed the trip. In no particular order, they are wings Paul Sackey and Mark Cueto plus full-back Delon Armitage, all from England, Ireland hooker Rory Best plus scrum halves Dwayne Peel of Wales and Blair of Scotland.
Wallace said: “I think the overall strength in depth is probably better than in 1997 when the Lions toured. But whether they have the players for a Test XV to beat the South Africans, only time will tell.”
There looks to be a terrific competition ahead for Test places in the Lions squad, given the fact that so many players appear to be of roughly equal ability. This means that the early tour games will assume a great importance, with players given the opportunity to stake their claim for a Test starting place.
I’d suggest that, at the present moment, the Lions coaching team has been able to pencil in more than six or seven at the most of the likely Test team. That means opportunities abound for almost every player in the squad and it could be that history repeats itself. In 1997, players such as scrum half Matt Dawson, lock Jeremy Davidson and flanker Richard Hill came through to seize Test places. The same could happen on this tour to a lot of comparatively unknown Test players.
The Lions will travel brimful of optimism and excitement. But they will soon come to understand the harsh reality of modern day rugby in the southern hemisphere. It is harder, faster, more dynamic and with greater precision than anything they have been used to. The learning curve for these Lions is going to be massive.