Thanks in all probability to its high origins and lengthy aloofness from professionalization, rugby union tends to have the best traditions. And I would go so far to say that a British and Irish Lions tour is the greatest tradition and institution in world sport.
Why do I say this? Professional rugby is all about building a squad that can withstand a long and arduous campaign – to succeed requires planning, preparation and practice. Think about what teams stand for and you almost invariably attribute to them a kind of style – the flair of Arsenal’s football and Welsh rugby, the forwards-based game that the English are capable of playing so well, and Ireland’s current fascination with ten-man rugby. In both these respects, the British and Irish Lions are a blank canvas. They are selected from the best of the four nations – a guarantee of quality, and yet, because their personnel is so mixed they have no fixed style of play. That is why in recent years the announcement of the coaching team has been almost more important than the squad. And when a squad is selected, it is by no means certain what the Test XV will be. Players can and do play themselves into contention.
Secondly, sport is generally based on reputations. Outside, rules are meant to be broken. Sport contents itself with breaking reputations. Rugby in particular has that peculiarly British imperialistic streak – pride in the motherland combined with the sensation that we have been surpassed. Aside from professional considerations, the great divide between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres is strengthened immeasurably by the perception of the athletic Aussies, bone-shuddering Springboks and awesome All Blacks.
I have always felt that of the three possible touring destinations for the Lions, the Springboks are the most romantic – if that is a permissible adjective, which I doubt very much it is. The arrogant Boer spirit has marked South Africa in terrible ways, but its rugby has always been the stronger for it. The veld and even Stellenbosche give the Afrikaner a unique brutality, and their self-belief – extending to the contention that they would undoubtedly have won one of the first two world cups had politics not excluded them from participations (sharpened by their victory in 1995 and unprecedented second title in 2007) – is a quality that is secretly as admirable in private as it is loathsome in public.
This current tour has been no exception to my general enthusiasm. It has arguably not been a ‘classic’ – after six warm-ups there has been so little continuity from the Lions, combined with so little apparently genuine competition, and the Springboks are ironically even more the unknown quantity. And yet, these qualities only serve to reinforce what is so great about Lions rugby. No one can help but have ideas about the ideal Test team, and no doubt, they will all be contentious. The unpredictability of the Tests is titillating to the extreme. Will the Lions’ backs be able to gel as well as the forwards have done? Will they have the same opportunities to run the game that the tactically limited provincial and invitational teams have afforded them? How good will the Springboks really be? It has been said that the Lions have an unfortunate habit of hitting each Southern Hemisphere nation at the latter’s peak, and that professionalism has been eating away at the competitiveness of these tours, but you can’t help but feel excitement at the approach of Testing times.
I want the last third of my post to be more contentious – hopefully as much as the Third Test will be. The reason is that I am going to add my (overdrawn) penny’s-worth to the Lions selection debate. The one thing that is certain from the warm-up games, in which only one of Saturday’s Springboks has played, is that the competition will be physical. You would expect as much, but fitness will play a massive role, especially if the score-line is tight. Furthermore, the breakdown will have to be hit hard. The assumption is that the Springboks will be better at running the game than the opposition has been thus far. That will be true of the forwards but also of the backs. The inclusion of Francois Steyn in the South African side adds a real element of danger for the Lions. Not only is he rapid, but he has the ability to score three-points from anywhere in the Lions’ half. Don’t believe me? Check youtube. And make no mistake, Van Der Westhuyzen’s kicking at goal today was probably the difference between the Lions and the Southern Kings today.
With that in mind, this is how I would select the Test Team, which is of course ridiculous.
- Gethin Jenkins – adds more than Sheridan in the loose, and as Graham Rowntree has pointed out, Sheridan is frequently outfoxed by clever props.
- Lee Mears – so tenacious and so abrasive; the perfect qualities for a hooker.
- Adam Jones – Vickery is a nuisance, and gives away too many penalties. Jones’ tackling has been good.
- Alun Wyn Jones – Too similar to O’Connell? By no means a bad thing if he gets around the park quickly and hits the ruck hard.
- Paul O’Connell – The Captain, even according to Pieter de Villiers.
- Tom Croft – Young enough to believe he’s immortal, fit enough and quick enough.
- Martyn Williams – Can offer the magic that turns a Test, or a Series. Most likely a turnover, but what about that spin and pass?
- Jamie Heaslip – great with ball in hand, but I hope I’m not missing a big tackler like Worsley.
- Mike Philips – just fantastic; so alert, and so strong.
- Ronan O’Gara – on balance, just that bit more likely to find touch, which is crucial. I wouldn’t have chosen a kicking fly-half, but compared to Hook’s creativity, Jones seems a bit of a journey man. O’Gara’s cross-field kick is sublime, and his place-kicking has been good. Will have to pass a lot though.
- Ugo Monye – would I have picked Williams? Probably, yes. Then again, he owes his place to a try-saving tackle in the Six Nations. Might he be required to repeat it on Habana?
- Jamie Roberts – so dynamic, so allergic to the ground. A real boon to the forwards.
- Brian O’Driscoll – playing the rugby of his life, and hopefully not needed as a flanker, though I look forward to a big hit or two.
- Tommy Bowe – looks so comfortable, and that is no small consideration.
- Lee Byrne – still so incisive, and probably the most experienced under the high-ball.
Do I think the Lions will win? It would be no fun if I was sure, but I have a good feeling, so long as the penalty count is low, the ball is not turned over much and the Lions are leading after sixty minutes.