By Alan Dymock
IN THE aftermath of the 6 Nations and with time running out we are all confronted with the starkest of choices: who are our Lions?
An obvious point of conjecture, there were at least some standouts in recents weeks. So in the interest of making clear what Warren Gatland, Graham Rowntree, Rob Howley and Andy Farrell face before the squad announcement on April 30, Rugby World will sift through the runners and riders in each key position.
So it comes to the second-rows, the boys in the boiler house making those meaty props look good and leaping skywards for their supper so the backs can play about for a bit. They are a misunderstood bunch, the locks, free to be praised for their grit but dropped because someone else has a few inches on them.
Much like the case of Andrew Coombs, who at the start of the Six Nations was being touted as a Lions bolter. Then he was replaced, with a less than golden handshake by Alun Wyn Jones who is now nailed on to tour, and potentially as captain? Well the man himself would never be drawn into a discussion, but his credentials are sure-footed while he takes a back seat on the media front. Alongside him for region and country, is Ian Evans, ‘the most naturally gifted athlete ever to come out of Aberdare’, in his own humble words. Evans had a sterling Six Nations and still has the motivation of reaching the play-offs, making it back-to-back victories in the Pro 12.
The Ospreys pair made easy work of the lineout, a place which has been somewhat of a lottery during the Championship. The funny thing about this is that on the back of such an instant impression and sound displays, they will not be competing in Europe, while the three most impressive lineout performers of the Six Nations, Donnacha Ryan, Geoff Parling and Jim Hamilton will all be in knockout games in the coming days with Munster, Leicester Tigers and Gloucester respectively.
All three are in the mix, but herein lies the problem. With the second-rows so much depends on performance right up to the last weekend.
The set piece is a point where not only attack matters, but against-the-head counter attack, too. Gatland needs to know that he has personnel who will not wither without the ball, and so he needs to know that the seasoned battler like Hamilton could keep his head and perform when tired and up against it, and he needs to know that the likes of Ryan and the excellent Parling will rise to the occasion.
For this reason Joe Launchbury must sparkle in the Amlin Cup against Leinster. He needs to show he can continue to rise, particularly after being overawed at the Millenium Stadium in the 6 Nations decider. He then needs to continue improving in the Aviva Premiership. Gatland needs to know he can continue coping because he will not pick simply because of a bright and loud flash in a very big pan.
This is where faith comes in. It is tough to put your trust in someone’s hands. Richie Gray could keep chugging at a high level, but he is hamstrung. For all his shaggy-haired brio around the paddock, crocked, he falls back into the ranks with the other youngsters that need a punt taken on them.
So the talk turns to people you can trust when up against it, and you can turn to two immovable objects from yesteryear, Paul O’Connell and Nathan Hines.
With all the empty talk of Lions legacy and the future of the home nations chucked away like a hissing cat in a wheelie bin, a Lions tour is judged by whether it was successful. O’Connell and Hines are uglier and meaner than they would openly admit, and that’s a good thing, which is why they are asked to absorb the thumps and shepherd others into play. Gatland has to decide whether those unknown quantities that he cannot ignore need some shepherding.
Either way, the selectors need to show the faith, be it in the old, or the new.