IAN McGEECHAN let the cat out of the bag the other week when he expressed a preference for a forward to captain the Lions in the forthcoming tour of South Africa.
Although the head coach will listen to the views of his aides, he is the sole selector and not likely to have changed his mind over the past few days, especially having noted the manner in which Paul O’Connell skippered Munster in their recent defeats of Leinster in the Magners League and Ospreys in the Heineken Cup.
So O’Connell will become the 10th Irishman to captain the Lions after Tom Smith (1910), Sammy Walker (1938), Karl Mullen (1950), Robin Thompson (1955), Ronnie Dawson (1959), Tom Kiernan (1968), Willie John McBride (1974), Ciaran Fitzgerald (1983) and Brian O’Driscoll (2005).
It’s a lot less clear-cut, however, when it comes to figuring out how many other Irish players will make the trip to South Africa. Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Jerry Flannery, Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace look like bankers while Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D’Arcy, Tomás O’Leary, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan and Stephen Ferris also appear to have strong claims to be on the trip.
That makes for a runaway record of 14 Irishmen and whether McGeechan is able to balance the books to accommodate that number is open to considerable doubt. Even then, there is the possibility that Marcus Horan (the only regular member of the Six Nations Grand Slam winning side not mentioned in the above group) and Keith Earls and Denis Leamy, both of whom got injured at the wrong time but who then caught the eye in front of coaches Rob Howley and Warren Gatland in the recent Munster-Ospreys game, could come into it.
While Ireland’s representation in the 36-man squad will command all the initial interest in this country at 1.30pm this afternoon, there are many other issues that will also provide animated debate. Is there a chance, for instance, that McGeechan will go against apparent logic and bring the almost permanently injured Jonny Wilkinson as a third out-half, along with O’Gara and Stephen Jones? Or could he consider his fellow-Wasp Danny Cipriani as a worthwhile option? I doubt it on both counts and there may well be only two number 10s in the squad, especially if the second Welsh candidate, James Hook, is deemed too flaky.
Not long ago, it would have been considered heresy not to bring two Ospreys, Shane Williams and Ryan Jones, but both have suffered a slump in form. But as they say, form is temporary, class is permanent and I would have no hesitation in picking Williams, the IRB world player of 2009, who could prove lethally dangerous on South Africa’s bone-hard grounds.
MULQUEEN’S SQUAD: Full-backs: Lee Byrne (Wales), Rob Kearney (Ireland).
Wings: Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald (Ireland), Shane Williams (Wales), Mark Cueto (England).
Centres: Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland), Tom Shanklin and Jamie Roberts (Wales), Riki Flutey (England).
Out-halves: Ronan O’Gara (Ireland), Stephen Jones and James Hook (Wales).
Scrum-halves: Mike Phillips (Wales), Mike Blair (Scotland), Tomás O’Leary (Ireland).
Props: Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery (England), Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Euan Murray (Scotland), John Hayes (Ireland).
Hookers: Jerry Flannery (Ireland), Lee Mears (England), Ross Ford (Scotland).
Second-rows: Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan (Ireland), Alun Wyn-Jones (Wales), Simon Shaw (England).
Wing-forwards: David Wallace and Stephen Ferris (Ireland), Tom Croft and Joe Worsley (England), Martyn Williams (Wales).
Number 8s: Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Ryan Jones (Wales), Nick Easter (England)
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