Irish trio look set to start in first Test
RUGBY: A shock to many, but no surprise to some. By naming his 22 for tomorrow's game against Southland, Clive Woodward effectively omitted Welsh star Gavin Henson from the Lions 22 for next Saturday's first Test against the All Blacks.
Almost certainly, it was also a precursor to naming Jonny Wilkinson at inside centre, in between Stephen Jones and Brian O'Driscoll, against New Zealand.
As forecast, the Lions captain looks like being one of three Irish starters next Saturday, with Paul O'Connell and Shane Byrne, and Shane Horgan is a strong contender for the replacements' bench. The other seven Irish players are bound for Invercargill and the Southland match, while the stunning debut of Wales's Ryan Jones as a call-up for the injured Simon Taylor has earned him a slot in the Test 22 ahead of his national captain, Michael Owen.
Curiously, Wilkinson will have played only one match out of the six tour games before the first Test, against Wellington last Wednesday, despite looking the player most in need of matches after just seven games this calendar year. Even then he was moved to centre for the last 17 minutes when Jones was brought on.
Revealingly, though, when talking about the impending Test selection last night, "midweek" coach Ian McGeechan said it had been "an ongoing process, and we wanted to try out combinations in both the Wellington game and the Otago game" last Saturday.
The Jones-Wilkinson axis has an unbalanced look about it, which would seem to place a heavy emphasis on a kicking game as well as accommodating Wilkinson's place-kicking. It certainly doesn't look designed to play much of a running game, but we shall see; and, if nothing else, Woodward certainly can't be accused of not going with his hunches.
There remains a theory hereabouts that Henson's selection at inside centre against Southland is a ruse to fool the Kiwis, and he will play against the All Blacks next Saturday, but Woodward said yesterday: "I have made clear that the players selected for Southland will not feature in the first Test, but that does not mean they do not have the opportunity to play in the second and third Tests.
"That is underlined by the history of Lions tours down the years. I want these players to keep challenging for Test places as the tour goes on by their performance on Tuesday."
There is no reason to doubt him, and, as forecast in these pages last week, there were clear signs that Henson, despite his undoubted talent, might miss out. For all his strengths in one-on-one tackling, in running with the ball and in his siege-gun boot, he is something of an enigmatic, non-communicative individualist, and you need talkative players in the middle of the backline. Also, the midfield defensive system seemed more porous when he was there.
There's been an undeniable logic and clear lines of planning to this campaign, and given that the starting XV for the first Test remained at the Lions' Christchurch base until Saturday to train with Andy Robinson, Eddie O'Sullivan and Phil Larder, Byrne looks in pole position to start against the All Blacks; presumably he, O'Connell and the first-choice pack have been practising setpieces.
As with Wilkinson, Jason Robinson's apparent inclusion in the first Test cannot be a form selection, but, in tandem with Gareth Thomas and Josh Lewsey, that looks like the outside three combination which was tried against Wellington.
The one riddle in all of this is that 23 players are left outside the Southland squad and thus still in the Test loop, with one from Horgan, Will Greenwood and Shane Williams to miss out. It's hard to believe Horgan won't be in the 22. A hunch says Greenwood will take it on the chin.
However, he is another Woodward favourite, and the Lions head coach also heaped praise on the Welsh contingent over the weekend, which, along with Henson and Owen, could yet be a sop toward Williams. With Chris Cusiter and Gordon Bulloch also bound for Invercargill, there will be no Scots in a Lions team for the first time since 1959.
RugbLIONS (possible v All Blacks): Josh Lewsey (England); Gareth Thomas (Wales), Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland, capt), Jonny Wilkinson (England), Jason Robinson (England); Stephen Jones (Wales), Dwayne Peel (Wales); Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Shane Byrne (Ireland), Julian White (England), Paul O'Connell (Ireland), Ben Kay (England), Richard Hill (England), Neil Back (England), Martin Corry (England). Replacements: Steve Thompson (England), Graham Rowntree (England), Danny Grewcock (England), Ryan Jones (Wales), Matt Dawson (England), Shane Horgan (Ireland), Will Greenwood (England) or Shane Williams (Wales).