Johnson: bold selection policy holds key to Lions success

MARTIN JOHNSON believes a bold selection policy is key to a successful Lions tour as competition to lead the 2009 squad to South Africa intensifies.

Johnson was skipper when the cream of British and Irish rugby swept to a unexpected 2-1 Test series victory against the Springboks in 1997.

The squad included a strong rugby league influence with the likes of Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs, John Bentley and Alan Tait among those picked to take on the reigning world champions.

Uncapped English centre Will Greenwood earned a surprise call-up while a handful of unknown quantities — such as Jeremy Davidson and Paul Wallace — played crucial roles in the series triumph.

The coach for 2009 will be named after the RBS 6 Nations and former Lions skipper Johnson has urged the successful candidate to heed the lessons of 10 years ago.

“For the first time a Lions squad could be picked from games outside of what was then the Five Nations,” he said.

“The Heineken Cup had been established. It meant a guy like Will Greenwood could be chosen on account of his performances for Leicester rather than England.

“Specific players were picked to play the game the coaches wanted to play.

“And some people – guys like Ben Clarke and Will Carling – were left out when they were expected to tour. It proved a successful policy.”

Ian McGeechan was the mastermind behind the success in South Africa in 1997 and its possible the canny Scot could be in charge for a fourth tour.

The search to uncover the best candidate will lead the Lions committee outside the coaches of the four home unions for the first time.

Overseas candidates will be considered but Lions chief executive John Feehan has indicated that a homegrown coach would be preferred.

McGeechan, currently director of rugby at European champions Wasps, fits the bill perfectly however – and has the backing of Johnson.

“Ian is a fantastic coach. His selection policy in 1997 was outstanding,” he said.

“If Ian was available to coach the Lions then he’d have to be under serious consideration.”

Johnson defends Clive Woodward’s decision to select a bloated squad for the tour to New Zealand two years ago.

Woodward was criticised for opting to take 44 players on the 11-match itinerary, which ended in a humiliating Test series whitewash by the All Blacks.

Feehan has declared a smaller group, 35 to 40 strong, will be chosen for South Africa.

But Johnson understands the thinking behind Woodward’s policy. He said: “I don’t agree that the 2005 party was too big.’’

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