x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lions chief given food for thought

Ian McGeechan, the Lions coach, has much to mull over before April 21, when he reveals his squad for this summer's tour to South Africa.

Jonny Wilkinson is set to return from injury against Leicester Tigers on Friday night and Ian McGeechan is bound to be an interested onlooker.
Jonny Wilkinson is set to return from injury against Leicester Tigers on Friday night and Ian McGeechan is bound to be an interested onlooker.

LONDON // Ian McGeechan, the Lions coach, has much to mull over before April 21, when he reveals his squad for this summer's tour to South Africa. Although Ireland's thrilling Grand Slam triumph sealed a memorable championship, only a few players have put together a series of outstanding performances that demand inclusion in the first Test against the world champions on June 20.

McGeechan can virtually pencil in on his team-sheet the names of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell - the only doubt seems to be which one will captain the side - but the rest is still very much up in the air following the series of subplots that took place in Cardiff on Saturday. The most intriguing of these was the duel between Stephen Jones and Ronan O'Gara at fly-half. O'Gara's winning drop-goal three minutes from time contrasted sharply with Jones's limp penalty attempt at the very end.

But O'Gara has lacked consistency and his fitful performances probably make Jones the more likely starter at this point. Even so, all eyes will be on Newcastle's match against Leicester on Friday when Jonny Wilkinson is due to make his latest comeback from injury. Following the November internationals the Welsh duo of Andy Powell and Lee Byrne were considered near-certainties for a Lions Test start at No 8 and full-back respectively.

Both players are now under serious pressure from the Ireland and Leinster pair of Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney. Heaslip's rampaging run against France in the first round showcased his mobility, pace and power, while Kearney has been assured under the high ball and incisive in attack. The back row looks particularly competitive, and given the embarrassment of riches that South Africa boast in this department, it is one area that McGeechan needs to get spot on if his squad are to repeat the 2-1 success he orchestrated in 1997.

The fact that Martyn Williams and David Wallace are fighting it out for the No 7 shirt highlights the fact that they Lions have a real chance of competing on the floor in the Rainbow Nation. It is on the blind-side flank though, that McGeechan has been handed three surprise options. England's spring bloom against France and Scotland was underpinned by the grit of Joe Worsley and the dynamism of Tom Croft.

Worsley's destructive tackling reduced Wales to a standstill last month and that ability will be priceless against the ball-carrying power of Dannie Roussow, Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger. Scotland's Alasdair Strokosch performs much the same role, but both may be beaten to the jersey by Croft. The Leicester flanker has been in scintillating form for both club and country. Croft's work-rate and pace will be important tools, as will his 6ft 6ins frame as a line-out option.

Other England players to throw their hat in the ring during the tournament were Delon Armitage and Riki Flutey, who could become the first player in history to turn out both for and against the Lions. He played against the Lions for Wellington in 2005. This has not been a vintage Six Nations in terms of player performances, and if McGeechan needs any reassurances of how difficult this summer's tour might be, he need only look at the Super 14 league table.

After six rounds the Pretoria-based Bulls lead the way, with the Sharks from Durban a point behind. Most of the Springboks look in fine fettle, too. McGeechan's coaching team of Warren Gatland, Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards have a lot of work to do. griddle@thenational.ae