The British & Irish Lions squad has all the attributes of a trademark Ian McGeechan outfit.
McGeechan announced his team on Tuesday afternoon with Paul O’Connell as captain. It was an open secret that O’Connell would be McGeechan’s pick, with only Bok coach Peter de Villiers surprised.
McGeechan has attempted to replicate the team characteristics of the 1997 squad, who also came to South Africa with the Boks as world champions and overwhelming favourites, but managed to upset the hosts.
McGeechan was always going to pick a forward as skipper and although O’Connell isn’t first-choice captain for his country – just as Martin Johnson wasn’t 12 years ago – it shows the visitors will attempt to dominate the set-piece where they believe the Boks are vulnerable.
Jim Telfer, who assisted McGeechan on the Lions tour 12 years ago, gave some insight as to why O’Connell trumped O’Driscoll as skipper and the effect the Lions are hoping it will have.
‘O’Driscoll is an inspirational player, an outstanding player,’ said Telfer. ‘But when I watch Ireland it looks to me as though O’Connell and [Ronan] O’Gara run the team.
‘O’Driscoll doesn’t come across in the media as a hard bastard. I know he does in the games, you couldn’t question that, but in public he’s very easy going.
‘You want somebody to sit there grim-faced and mean. That’s what Johnson did.’
Telfer knows McGeechan inside out and this approach, headed by O’Connell, will be the mantra of the entire squad.
One of the surprise inclusions is 36-year-old Simon Shaw, who plays under McGeechan at Wasps. Shaw’s ability to harass opponents at the breakdowns, as well as his experience of South Africa meant he won the vote ahead of younger players such as Nick Kennedy.
Shaw was the only player available to McGeechan that was part of the 2-1 series win in 1997 and his experience is the main reason for his inclusion.
Ditto with regards the surprise selection of second-choice Irish loose-forward Alan Quinlan (who is one of a quartet of Irish loosies). McGeechan has not selected the most talented or flashy players, but those he hopes can do a job up-front and those that will attempt to stand up to the physicality of the Boks.
England flank and lineout specialist Tom Croft will be disappointed not to make it, but the choice of 34-year-old Quinlan ahead of him is another case of grunt ahead of flair.
The omission of Danny Cipriani – who was thought to be an outside bet – may be surprising to some, but McGeechan was never likely to choose him. Cipriani’s inflated ego and personality would have upset the team dynamic and building unity between four different nations as quickly as possible is key on a Lions tour.
It was also for this reason that McGeechan strategically selected more Irish players than Welsh ones (14 as oppose to 13). If the Welsh had more members in the squad, it simply would have created further disharmony among the Irish, who are already dominated by Wales’ coaching staff of Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley.
The omission of the other Test captains, especially Ryan Jones and Mike Blair, may be a shock to the respective nations, but again this allows Irishman O’Connell to stamp his authority on the squad.
The squad may not have the same class and skill as a 37-man Bok squad would have, but what the Lions do have is an astute coach in McGeechan who would love to repeat the feat of ’97.
By Grant Ball