Clive prospects hard to call
Lions squad: Gerry Thornley attempts the impossible by trying to read CliveWoodward's mind in terms of squad selection for the summer tour.
The biggest source of pub rugby debate over the last few months - namely the great guessing game regarding the make-up of the British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand this summer - will be resolved on Monday when Clive Woodward reveals his hand. Which, admittedly, is liable to provoke even more debate.
The squad might not ultimately be as numerous as the 44 he had once intimated; previous Lions manager Donal Lenihan and two-time tourist Keith Wood are among those who have voiced concern about such a large playing squad. Whatever the final tally, accurately forecasting the make-up of the squad is virtually impossible given the criteria may include form, past form, health and all manner of other factors, which might include Woodward's own preferences, selectorial bartering, and inevitably a bolter or two.
"Nobody is an expert," Wood concludes, and it wouldn't be Woodward if there weren't some quirky picks in there, players who've had little or no involvement in the Six Nations."
It is widely accepted that Irish performances of late will probably mean fewer travelling from this shore than might have travelled four months ago, and concomitantly, Welsh representation has probably increased exponentially.
Dick Best predictably stirred up quite a hornet's nest in the week of Wales's Grand Slam denouement against Ireland when he declared their success was built on sand and could not be a template for the Lions.
However, he probably wasn't exercising his lungs just for the sake of it, and the former English coach may have been preparing the ground for a preponderance of big English forwards. Aside from Lions experience, Woodward will also want English players who are that rare breed, proven winners in New Zealand two summers ago as well as at the World Cup.
Gethin Jenkins and Julian White already look likely Test picks, with Graham Rowntree, Adam Jones and Matt Stephens possible tourists, and John Hayes could unluckily miss out if Woodward retains faith in Phil Vickery, though that goes against the grain of his desire for healthy, fit players.
With four specialist hookers likely to go, it may simply be a case of picking the four Test starters. Secondrow and backrow are where it starts to get tricky.
Along with Paul O'Connell, Woodward is a known admirer of Danny Grewcock and Ben Kay (and Andy Robinson of the hardy Steve Borthwick), less so of the multi-talented Simon Shaw. Along with one or both of Brent Cockbain or Robert Sidoli, Woodward's expressed admiration for Trevor Brennan and Donncha O'Callaghan (who went well in the tsunami match) could see one of them accommodated alongside or, almost unthinkably, at the expense of Malcolm O'Kelly, but it's hard to see a player of Big Mal's experience missing out.
Backrow, though Ireland's most fertile area, may ultimately prove barren territory. Johnny O'Connor looks the best hope but may miss out to Neil Back and Martyn Williams, especially as Lewis Moody now looks a prime and versatile pick, and Richard Hill might also travel.
Lawrence Dallaglio will probably go, and either emerge as the midweek captain or, knowing that competitive animal, force his way into the Test team. Martin Corry and Michael Owen are form picks, and Jason White - the kind of Trevor Brennan-like tough hombre you'd want for almost two months in a New Zealand winter - was one of Scotland's few successes. Ian McGeechan will surely be backing the bolter of four years ago, Simon Taylor, even if he looks like he has some way to go after his year-long absence.
Matt Dawson, also hugely admired by his old Lions and Northampton coach McGeechan, improved England every time he was introduced in the Six Nations and may even make the Test team. Dwayne Peel, quick and tough, looks a certainty too. Then it's two from Chris Cusiter, Gareth Cooper, Mike Blair and Harry Ellis, with Peter Stringer's dip in form likely to scupper his hopes.
Having publicly cited the examples of four years ago, Woodward is not inclined to bring injured players, but one of the exceptions will surely be Jonny Wilkinson, with chances to prove his fitness before take-off culminating in the Lions-Argentina Test in Cardiff on May 23rd.
Stephen Jones looks ever surer of his plane ticket but whether it's three or four, the rest will be nervous. Charlie Hodgson may have redeemed himself in Lansdowne Road sufficiently, though he still looks flaky, while Ronan O'Gara's knee injury appears untimely, even if Eddie O'Sullivan will strongly be in his corner. The biased British media campaign for Hodgson and against O'Gara may also have been either coincidental or persuasive.
Woodward remains an admirer of David Humphreys (another who went well in the tsunami match) and the presence of Gavin Henson and perhaps Chris Paterson could mean only three specialists are chosen. No O'Gara would seem unthinkable, but there you go.
Midfield is another minefield. Along with Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan's versatility, good form, return to health, ruggedness and aerial ability for crosskicks and reverse restarts makes him almost look a shoo-in, as well as Gavin Henson.
The rest? Only lack of match time and recurring hamstring problems count against Gordon D'Arcy, whom Woodward likes. Ditto Mike Tindall, whom Phil Larder would want along. Tom Shanklin has made a good late charge, and Ollie Smith has looked better for Leicester than England's midfield picks. Another potential bolter, not least as a high-voltage impact replacement, is Ayoola Erinle.
Gareth Thomas and Josh Lewsey have surely packed their bags, as will Jason Robinson most probably, though he hasn't looked the player of two years ago.
Paterson, though iffy in defence, will also have McGeechan in his corner.
Mark Cueto's prolific end-of-season form looks timely but he's relatively inexperienced, and though one shudders to think of Doug Howlett coming at him in full flight, Shane Williams's dancing feet may see him become a midweek star.
Geordan Murphy's reminder for Leicester last week, in tandem with his versatility, may be enough to counter a disappointing Six Nations, whereas Denis Hickie should go but may again miss out, more through lack of ball than any shortcomings. Woodward is also a huge Iain Balshaw fan.
As for the captaincy, Woodward has already prepared the ground for Thomas being his choice and timing may be a factor. The week he spent with Wales culminated in their win over France whereas his week in Citywest ended with Ireland's defeat to the same opponents. Then again, O'Driscoll, looks a surer Test pick. Hmmm.
That would make 16 English, 13 Welsh, 10 Irish - which may well be too optimistic - and five Scots. The tension is rising. Cue relief, disappointment, even joy. Tough on the players too.
Gerry Thornley's squad
Props: Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Julian White (England), Graham Rowntree (England), John Hayes (Ireland), Adam Jones (Wales), Matt Stephens (England).
Hookers: Steve Thompson (England), Gordon Bulloch (Scotland), Mefin Davies (Wales), Shane Byrne (Ireland).
Secondrows: Paul O'Connell (Ireland), Danny Grewcock (England), Ben Kay (England), Donncha O'Callaghan (Ireland), Malcolm O'Kelly (Ireland), Robert Sidoli (Wales).
Backrow: Martin Corry (England), Lewis Moody (England), Lawrence Dallaglio (England), Michael Owen (Wales), Jason White (Scotland), Neil Back (England), Martyn Williams (Wales), Simon Taylor (Scotland), Richard Hill (England).
Scrumhalves: Matt Dawson (England), Dwayne Peel (Wales), Chris Cusiter (Scotland), Gareth Cooper (Wales).
Outhalves: Jonny Wilkinson (England), Stephen Jones (Wales), David Humphreys (Ireland).
Centres: Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Gavin Henson (Wales), Shane Horgan (Ireland), Tom Shanklin (Wales), Ollie Smith (England), Gordon D'Arcy (Ireland).
Outside backs: Gareth Thomas (Wales, capt), Josh Lewsey (England), Jason Robinson (England), Shane Williams (Wales), Chris Paterson (Scotland), Geordan Murphy (Ireland)
Keith Wood's prediction
How many Irish players will get in the squad? Not as many as would have made it before the Six Nations. Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Gordon D'Arcy, Geordan Murphy, Denis Hickie and Shane Horgan should go, and probably Ronan O'Gara too. One or two others who have a chance are Anthony Foley, Johnny O'Connor, Donncha O'Callaghan and David Humphreys, while Marcus Horan is my dark horse.
How many Irish will make the Test side? I wouldn't even be prepared to guess, because it depends on which way the wind is blowing.
Who will be captain? Brian O'Driscoll.
How will the Test series pan out? The Kiwis are favourites. A key would be if the midweek side put the Test players under pressure.
Jeremy Davidson's prediction
How many Irish players will get in the squad? Nine.
How many Irish will make the Test side? Four.
Who will be captain? Brian O'Driscoll.
How will the Test series pan out? Too early to tell.
Fergus Slattery's prediction
How many Irish players will get in the squad? Seven or eight. Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Geordan Murphy are certainties. Trevor Brennan should tour, while Gordon D'Arcy, Ronan O'Gara, Donncha O'Callaghan and Shane Byrne could all make it.
How many Irish will make the Test side? Two - Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell.
Who will be captain? Brian O'Driscoll - the side will probably be dominated by English and Welsh so it would be prudent to balance it with an Irish captain. Also, O'Driscoll is a Test certainty and he is playing well.
How will the Test series pan out? New Zealand to win 2-1, if not 3-0.