A Bridge

British and Irish Lions 2009 comment

So here’s a stab at punditry on the B&I selection.

The theme that seems to be running through the squad is that of “solidity”. Eddie Butler from the Guardian says mcGeechan has gambled, but it would seem to me that the only gamble here is Keith Earls, the Munster utility back who did not figure in the 6 nations.

There were no “fitness” gambles made on a politics wages. Gavin Henson was not picked, and neither was Ryan Jones, despite being two of the bigger names in Home Nations rugby. Because they are unfit and have recently underperformed. In 2005, picking Jonny Wilkinson was considered to be a gamble by many observers, the pivot having been sidelined for a long period after the 2003 world cup final. He did not perform to his world standards.

The choice of o’Connell as captain also reflect this. There are more skilled players out there, for sure, and even more skilled locks – Wyn Jones comes to mind for sheer handling abilities.

However, the huge Munster man is a tried and true combination with o’Callaghan, and as a captain, offers a no-bullshit, no-compromise approach. As has been pointed out, o’Driscoll is ruthless on the pitch, but o’Connell is ruthless throughout.

The selection shows that they have chosen a “third way” (and here I agree with Butler) – there was never a chance to outsize the South Africans, especially in the back row, and its a good thing mcGeechan didn’t try. He picked a combination of power, prowess and subtle handling skills, as well as what can be seen as a fairly disciplined pack – Schalk Burger may be amongst the toughest tacklers in the game, but it will be a rare occasion when he will baffle an entire stadium with wit and guile, like Martyn Williams did this weekend with his try-scoring pass to Halfpenny.

Nor does the selection concede that the Springboks are bigger and reverse in the opposite direction, trying to out-champagne them.

For every mercurial runner (Williams, Halfpenny, Bowe), there are players solid in defence and straight-running in attack (Roberts, Kearney, Jones). The scrum-halves were clearly picked with size in mind, or Mike Blair would have had a look-in, and more sporadic/genius fly-halves such as Hook or Cipriani were excluded. Stuart Barnes says this equals lack of magic, but against the Springboks, magic equals a flattened 10 and backs starved for the ball. The sleek running is simply going to happen further out afield.

McGeechan knows that taking the team to either extreme of the Flare-Grunt spectrum would have been squashed by the Springboks, who can adapt to any kind of game plan. This selection mixes things up, with players able to see holes, and others to punch through them. Perhaps a “third way” will be seen as wishy-washy by others, but to this commentator the selection looks varied enough to yield results.

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