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Fresh legs essential in long run


Tommy Bowe has already re-established his place at the top of the pecking order and will be nicely primed by tour time’

Tommy Bowe has already re-established his place at the top of the pecking order and will be nicely primed by tour time’

Tommy Bowe has already re-established his place at the top of the pecking order and will be nicely primed by tour time’

In the summer of 2001, when the Lions were last in Australia, Ireland coach Warren Gatland's Test commitments extended no further than a spin to Bucharest. It was a handy trip to a city dramatically improved from the dark days of dodgy power supply, dodgier food and the altogether unhinged Nicolae Ceausescu.

In and out in the space of a few days, it was the polar opposite of what was cranking up in Australia where the best of the home nations had landed for the first ever full-on tour of the country.

By the time it was wrapping up in Sydney, Gatland was on his holidays. When the Irish representatives got back they were able to tell him of the wadges of chewing gum and yards of string needed to keep the players together in that last week Down Under. By no means the toughest of the three points on the Lions' compass, the circuit of Australia had ended in carnage.

Rugby has moved on apace since then, to a point where its relentless physicality is probably unique among team sports. So when you're selecting for a series of battles, as it will be in Australia, you have to approach it differently to a Test at any other time of year. In these circumstances, models with low mileage should have a premium.

It's not at all clear that Gatland will be as focused on this criterion as we are in this parish. He is on the record as saying that those battle-hardened by the Six Nations will benefit from the experience come Australia. Not so sure about that one Wazza.

Players like to say that there is never a good time to be injured. Not so sure about that one either lads. Trips to Paris in the 1980s and early '90s, and tours to New Zealand at any time, struck a few players down the years as good times to be unavailable. In a Lions year, however, when a seven-week assignment comes at the end of a 10-month season, it makes sense to have spent some of the long, wearying preamble off your feet.

Ireland has a fair few potential travellers in this class. We would bring most of them. Wales and England have a couple as well. Some of them would be shoo-ins in any case, and others not in that class, but all of them have more to offer than would be the case had they been tipping away uninterrupted since last August.

So, starting at the back: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo are all fresher than they normally would be at this stage of the day because of earlier lay-offs. So too Brian O'Driscoll and Jonny Sexton – the latter closer to raw than fresh, in fairness.

Up front, Paul O'Connell, Ian Evans, Tom Croft, Dan Lydiate and Seán O'Brien are all far removed from that end-of-season feeling because of their issues dating back, for some, to the start of term. Ryan Jones is also in that group.

On paper, Lydiate is a risk because he missed the international season having broken an ankle in the autumn, but by next weekend in the RDS he will have five games under his belt. A run in the England/Barbarians game in May might be all he could get before Hong Kong. It's not ideal, but then neither is arriving to the last week of the tour in a heap, and we think it's worth the punt.

Tommy Bowe has already re-established his place at the top of the pecking order and will be nicely primed by tour time. So too Simon Zebo who offers a better kicking game than any other wing in the shake-up. Jonny Sexton could have done with his down time coming a lot earlier but Leinster's league form offers him time to catch up.

The freshness factor is most evident in the second-row choices: between Paul O'Connell, Ian Evans and Alun Wyn Jones, they have only nine Tests played this season. And in the back row Tom Croft, whose neck injury at one point looked career-threatening, has just two international runs, and they were perfectly timed.

The hard choices are leaving out players who before Christmas you would have written in ink. Ben Morgan for example. His impact for England against the All Blacks in November was terrific, and while his freshness profile suits our cause, there is enough ball-carrying ability in Toby Faletau and Jamie Heaslip – as well as Ryan Jones who can cover second and back rows – to make Morgan a luxury. Talking to coaches around the Premiership and Pro12, it's interesting to see how quickly they say Heaslip's form is poor, and that he had a bad Six Nations. This is off the mark. His captaincy clearly was an issue – his form was, and is, not bad at all.

The decision to include Mike Ross will be seen in the south of this country as home-town. It isn't. First you need six props given that there will be four on duty in every game, and second you want tightheads who can scrummage. Ross, unlike Rudolf Nureyev, may not yearn for hard ground, but then he's not being brought to gambol about the place. Donnacha Ryan is a player we'd have loved to include for a few reasons but his bravery in playing injured through the Six Nations cost him impact.

There is a flaw too in including a couple of French-based players who may miss the commercially-driven jolly in Hong Kong en route Down Under. So be it. Selection is often a compromise, and the more rules you make before you start the harder it becomes.

As Warren Gatland will testify on Tuesday, it's impossible to keep everyone happy. And it's a whole lot harder than a few days in Romania.


Brendan Fanning's Lions Squad

15 Leigh Halfpenny (9 Tests/11 Club games*), Rob Kearney (5/7), Stuart Hogg (8/11)

14/11 George North (7/17), Tommy Bowe (0/11), Alex Cuthbert (9/12), Simon Zebo (4/14)

13/12 Brian O'Driscoll (5/11) (captain), Manu Tuilagi (8/20), Jamie Roberts (9/12), Jonathan Davies (7/16), James Hook (5/23)

10 Jonny Sexton (4/13), Owen Farrell (8/20)

9 Mike Phillips (9/23), Conor Murray (7/15), Ben Youngs (9/16)

1/3 Gethin Jenkins (8/19), Cian Healy (6/16), Andrew Sheridan (0/26), Adam Jones (5/14), Dan Cole (9/22), Mike Ross (7/17)

2 Richard Hibbard (6/17), Rory Best (5/14), Dylan Hartley (5/20)

4/5 Alun Wyn Jones (4/16), Paul O'Connell (0/6), Ian Evans (5/12), Joe Launchbury (9/19), Ryan Jones (6/10)

6/7 Dan Lydiate (0/8), Tom Croft (2/9), Seán O'Brien (5/9), Sam Warburton (8/16), Justin Tipuric (9/15)

8 Toby Faletau (9/18), Jamie Heaslip (7/15).

Next on the Plane

Outside back: Sean Maitland

Centre: Billy Twelvetrees

Halfbacks: Dan Biggar, Danny Care

Front row: Ryan Grant, Richardt Strauss, Euan Murray

Second row: Geoff Parling, Donncha Ryan

Back row: Chris Robshaw, Ben Morgan, Tom Wood

(* Game stats are leading to this weekend)

Irish Independent