England and ‘the rest of them’

BEAUTY, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder and one man’s “incredibly exciting back division” is another’s team of robots.

So it was with the team selected by British and Irish Lions coach Clive Woodward for the first Test against the New Zealand All Blacks this Saturday at Jade Stadium.

Ireland can rejoice at the inclusion of Shane Byrne at hooker alongside certain picks Paul O’Connell and captain Brian O’Driscoll, as well as the deserved inclusion of Shane Horgan on the bench. Woodward has also kept the Grand Slam-winning Welsh happy by pairing Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones in the half-backs.

But the former England coach caused controversy yesterday by inserting English fly-half Jonny Wilkinson at inside centre on the strength of 20 minutes in the back end of a game a week ago against a Wellington side that had already been beaten.

It wasn’t just the Welsh who were aggrieved by the omission of Gavin Henson from the Test 22. Former England and Lions centre Jeremy Guscott questioned that decision.

“This team is almost robotic in its selection because I think it has been picked to play in a certain way,” said Guscott. “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’m disappointed, but Woodward is pragmatic and that selection is pragmatic without a doubt.

“You can’t say it’s right or wrong until you know the result but I personally don’t believe it is the right choice to put Wilkinson at inside centre. I would have gone with Gavin Henson. He 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 Jones. Jones was the form outside half of the Six Nations Championship, which Jonny didn’t play in. So no one will argue with the selection of Jones at number 10. What people are more likely to question is Wilkinson’s selection at inside centre. I question it as I believe Henson should play.”

All Black legend Zinzan Brooke believes the Lions tour to New Zealand could “go off the rails” if they lose the first Test on Saturday. Brooke said Sir Clive Woodward had taken a “massive gamble” in his reliance on England players in the XV. “This drives a stake into the rest of the squad. If they don’t win, it could destroy confidence. In fact, if they don’t win this game with the gamble Woodward has taken, the tour could go off the rails.”

Among the contentious issues in the team announcement is Wilkinson’s selection at inside centre and the naming of an all-England back row.

“It’s hard to make any sense of what he’s done there,” said Brooke. “You could understand the decision if England had won the Six Nations, but he’s now created two teams: an England team and a ‘rest of them’ team.”

The other selection which puzzled many observers was the choice of Jason Robinson at full-back, despite the fact Josh Lewsey has played there three times already on tour and earned rave reviews. The late-arriving Robinson had a patchy game on the wing against Wellington and Lewsey now plays on the wing, with Wales captain Gareth Thomas making up the back three.

Woodward defended his selections yesterday: “I went with Jonny because I almost feel that centre is his better position. I don’t think there is a lot of difference between 10 and 12. Jonny will get more width.” Accommodating Wilkinson, who last played at 12 for England in 1999, was a consequence of going with all-Welsh half-back pair Jones and Peel.

“Watching the Six Nations I was immensely impressed with Stephen and Dwayne especially in the second half against France,” Woodward said.

“They really delivered and that’s when I first started thinking who is going to play outside them.

“Playing Jonny at 12 alongside Stephen is a huge bonus. There is a left-foot/right-foot kicking option and it also gives you great strike power in terms of your passing game,” he added, before confirming Wilkinson would be the primary goal-kicker.

Meanwhile, Byrne’s more accurate lineout throwing edged out England’s Steve Thompson for the hooking position, while Ben Kay held off rival Danny Grewcock to partner Paul O’Connell in the second row, though Woodward was at pains to point out how close Donncha O’Callaghan had come to making the Test 22.

Wales back-row forward Ryan Jones got his reward for a man-of-the-match performance against Otago in Dunedin last weekend. He was named on the bench just a week after joining the squad as a replacement for Simon Taylor and will back up a veteran back-row of former Lions in Richard Hill, Neil Back and Martin Corry.

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