Sunday, March 20, 2005

Oh, Rugger!

An Spailpín has a friend who was heartbroken after Ireland's defeat to France last Saturday week. It was like the first time a man gets stabbed in the back by a girl - his lower lip was quivering, he was a mass of hurt and he just couldn't figure out how it could have happened. It was, he told me, the first time he attended an Irish rugby game where Ireland had lost.

And that explains it. This young man became rugby aware in the professional era, whereas An Spailpín vividly remembers Jimmy Davidson trying to graft "Team Ulster" onto Ireland, the Brian Smyth era, Rob Saunders, the whole damned lot. Today, twenty-four hours after Wales restored their Grand Slam tradition, my friend got a taste of old-style Ireland, and An Spailpín is not looking forward to meeting him tomorrow. Nor for the foreseable Irish rugby future, which looks, in a word, bleak.

The always prescient Keith Duggan sounded a warning note in his Sideline Cut column in yesterday's Irish Times. Duggan reminded us that Ireland picks its rugby team from a tiny, tiny pool of players. When Gordon D'Arcy twanged his hamstring in Rome, there was a big drop in quality in the Irish backline. This contrasts remarkably with France, as Duggan pointed out: "Stripped of his first-choice and then his second-choice centre, Monsieur Laporte had the luxury of capping the never-to-be-forgotten Benoit Baby, who proceeded to run riot in an all too French way. That alone pin-pointed the difference between the two nations."

Ireland, with the occasional overseas exception, draws its international rugby team from two teams, Leinster and Munster. By rights it should be three, including Ulster, who seem to be having certain difficulties embracing all that professionalism entails, but even then, when you're talking about picking a representative side from three teams, you're talking about facing the same selection choices as the Leitrim senior hurling manager - there are only three hurling clubs in Leitrim.

As was rightly pointed out in the TV analysis after Wales stormed through Ireland at Cardiff, it's not like there was a Campbell/Ward argument going on. Maybe you could argue about bringing Trevor Brennan into to the panel to add some steel at the backrow, or certainly argue about Donncha O'Callaghan at Number Eight, but other than that the Irish side was as good a XV as we can put out. And it wasn't good enough, end of story. The only real suprise is how we've been able to compete at the highest level as well as we have for as long as we have.

And it would also be churlish in the extreme to take anything away from what was is a superb Welsh team. Two legends of Welsh rugby, Cliff Morgan and Phil Bennett, have both sung the team's praises for playing in the Welsh way, which means supporting the selection of Shane Williams on the wing. The argument is the argument of wanting to win more than fearing to lose - modern rugby wisdom supports the selection of a behometh like Ben Cohen on the wing, on the basis that not much will get past him. For Wales and Williams, as it was for Australia and David Campese when Alan Jones was in charge, they'll let the other fellas worry about who's getting past whom.

Lions time. A number of Irish players saw their chances of a Lions test place go up in smoke yesterday. Brian O'Driscoll only added to his considerable lustre in Cardiff, while I have more to say on Paul O'Connell anon. On his first season as an Ireland player, Johnny O'Connor was exemplary. On a day when Ireland were lashed and battered by Wales, O'Connor took his inspiration from Dylan Thomas, and raged, raged, against the dying of the light. After an inauspicious start against South Africa and Argentina, O'Connor has now claimed the Irish openside as his own feudal domain, and edges Martyn Williams for my money for the Lions' openside.

Eddie O'Sullivan didn't do Ronan O'Gara's chances of Lions selection any good at all by hauling him off. O'Gara had not been having a good day at the office, but it wasn't one of his nightmare games either, like against France in the World Cup. However, once his own national coach lost faith in him he will have few singing for him at the Lions selection meetings, and Sir Clive Woodward's quote in this morning's Sunday Times that he is "fully confident" of Jonny Wilkinson touring means that Ronan O'Gara is now in very real danger of watching the Lions on the telly at home in Cork.

Geordan Murphy hasn't done himself any favours either. The Lions have seven games before the first test at Christchurch (including, disgracefully, one on home soil - does tradition mean nothing to people?) and Murphy will need to step up very high indeed to make a claim for the fifteen shirt. I have a surprise selection for fifteen myself, but first let me address some thought to the captaincy.

O'Driscoll has been favourite since the season began and, as Ireland collapsed all around him, he only added more and more to his reputation as the best rugby player in the world. However, O'Driscoll is still a back, and great captains generally live in the pack. The way Ireland finished their Six Nations campaign will have done him no favours of course, but Paul O'Connell remains a very tempting surprise selection as Lions captain. If you can find a book setting a tasty price on O'Connell as captain, take it.

There is another reason to pick O'Connell of course, and it has to do with rugby's unwritten laws. Do you think when Colin Meads saw O'Connell fighting with Robert Sidoli on the ground in Cardiff he immediately turned off his telly and sent the grandchildren from the room? Not hardly. Pine Tree would only have thoughtfully stroked a sentimental scar, and relished the tour ahead.

PROBABLE LIONS FIRST TEXT XV: Patterson (Scotland); Robinson (England), O'Driscoll (Ireland), Henson (Wales), Williams (Wales); Jones (Wales), Peel (Wales); Jenkins (Wales), Thompson (England), White (England); O'Connell (Ireland, captain), Grewcock (England); White (Scotland), O'Connor (Ireland), Corry (England).

If Wilkinson is fit he'll play at stand-off half, of course, but I'm afraid to say I think poor Jonny is done for. I wouldn't pick Thompson myself, but he's Sir Clive's boy and, at the end of the day, this is Sir Clive's team. Chris Patterson will be on most people's lists, if he's on anybody's list, as one-half utility back and one-half token Scotchman, but personally I like the man's style, and it's not his fault that he's on such a poor international team. Lions tours are about nothing if not romance, so Patterson is my pick to come from nowhere and set the Lions on fire. After all, it didn't do Tony O'Reilly any harm.