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On A Hiding To Nothing
6 June 2005, 9:21 am
Lions coach Clive Woodward provoked a raft of criticism when he named his side to play the All Blacks on Saturday, most of it centering around his selection at inside centre
Lions coach Clive Woodward provoked a raft of criticism when he named his side to play the All Blacks on Saturday.

Most of it centered on the exclusion of Gavin Henson, his selection at inside centre of Jonny Wilkinson, his non-selection of Gavin Henson, the fact that the squad is largely - 13 from 22 - made up of English players and eh, oh yes, of course, the omission of Gavin Henson.

OK the the gist of the critic s argument is this.

The errant Knight has ignored Six Nations form, further ignored the form so far on the Tour and, harking back to the World Cup glory days when Britannia once again ruled the (rugby) world, picked his English yeomanry ahead of some more deserving.

Now, included in the critics are compatriots Jeremy Guscott and Nigel Melville with Guscott, who featured in eight Tests for the Lions between 1989 and 1997 quoted as saying, This team is almost robotic in its selection because I think it has been picked to play in a certain way.

"The pack will stick the ball up the jumper and try to grind out a victory by frustrating and wearing down the All Blacks. "In some ways, I am disappointed. But Woodward is pragmatic, and that selection is pragmatic without a doubt. "You can't say it is right or wrong until you know the result, but personally, I don't believe it is the right choice to put Wilkinson at inside centre. I would have gone with Gavin Henson. Gavin who ?

"He (Henson) always makes that extra one or two yards, and is the only real playmaker. What should have happened on this tour is for people to have played off Henson, as no-one seems to be playing off Wilkinson or (Stephen) Jones."

Melville, until recently coach at Gloucester, writing in The Guardian says that , no-one knows Jonny Wilkinson better than Rob Andrew and if Andrew says Wilkinson is a number 10 and should be played there then that s good enough for me.

But the hugely respected Melville goes on to say, Woodward obviously thinks differently and it s easy to understand why. Wilkinson has won him games before and the Lions head coach clearly believes that if Saturday s first Test goes down to the wire then that charmed left foot might just decide it.

It s a gamble, Melville continues, and by 10 o clock on Saturday morning we ll know whether it s inspired or something more flaky.

In general the hullabaloo about Henson is extraordinary. Before they came on this tour the Welshman was considered a live contender, no more, for the number 12 shirt. Now it seems the whole tour is in danger of melt-down cause the spikey-haired one is missing ? Hardly.

There are few who would have any quibble with the front row or the second-row but the back-row is another area where those other than English media and supporters wonder about.

Richard Hill is 32. He is an outstanding player, but not long back from serious injury and certainly in one who comes under the not selected on form label. Neil Back is 36 has been off the international scene and has had just one game on this tour.

Taking it from a Regional rage point of view then. The Welsh are in no doubt that Ryan Jones should have started, that Martyn Williams should be on the bench and that Tom Shanklin might also have made the cut. (and don t even go there when it comes to the shaven-legged one).

The Scots will argue that seeing as Gordon Bulloch s throwing is superior to Steve Thompson (but then everyone s is) he should be on the bench but their claims to have Chris Cusiter in the number 20 shirt ahead of Matt Dawson probably have a more legitimate ring.

And least the Irish be ignored the feeling would be that if you are going to play Jason Robinson at full-back then Geordan Murphy is a better option, and if you re going to play Jason Robinson on the wing Geordan Murphy is a better option. In fact no matter where you play Jason Robinson, Geordan Murphy is a better option. They're probably quite right.

One thing for sure you would have a lot of trouble doing, is swopping, Will Greenwood for Geordan in a Leicester squad, for Gordon D'Arcy in an Ireland or Leinster squad and Murphy for sure can feel truly amazed that 'young' Will gets onto the bench ahead of him.

The perceived wisdom throughout the tour so far was that Donncha O Callaghan had done enough to merit the number 18 shirt and that on tour form limited though it was, Simon Easterby would have proved a better choice than Hill.

And on and on it goes and Sir Clive is on a hiding to nothing if his English yeomanry fail to answer his call to arms. On the other hand however, if he has gotten it right, he will be hailed a hero and rightly so.

But the ironic thing is that if the Lions come up short on Saturday, Woodward will be the sole carrier of the can. The players will avoid the flak because they will be covered by the, shouldn t have been selected (by Sir C) in the first place.

Following that the stories of disharmony will seep through the walls of the team hotel. We will hear that such-and-such a coach was not at all happy with the selection and made his feelings known, etcetera, etcetera.

But none of this will come as a surprise to our Knight in shining armour (still). Like any coach he knows exactly where the buck stops but unlike a lot of coaches Woodward is more than well equipped to deal with the circumstances as they present themselves.

You have to admire his single-mindedness, his unshakable belief in himself. And if he can transpose those virtues to his side then they have every chance of winning in Christchurch.

But if he can t then it s a long long way back. Not for the players, because this squad undoubtedly has the personnel to win the Test series.

Sir Clive set out his stall in the plainest cloth after the Maori defeat when he asked to be judged on the Tests.

The first verdict comes in on Saturday. If he is found guilty, even if his armour is plated, it won t protect him. A not-guilty veridct only means he lives to fight another joust. Such is a coach's life.

The sort of man he is, he wouldn t have it any other way.

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