D-day is approaching and tomorrow we will know the identities of the 36 men charged with repeating the trick of 12 years ago and turning over the world champion Springboks.
Players will be disappointed and some may be a little angry. Some supporters will be miffed that their particular favourite has not made the cut or that a borderline call has gone against the man from their country. But once selection is done with, all rugby people in Great Britain and Ireland will join together to get behind their men, a team who will only be together for 5 weeks but could complete a historic achievement to echo down the ages.
Ian McGeechan is the man with the final say so what will be going through his mind as he puts the finishing touches to his party. It far from simply picking the best players. He also needs to judge that greatest but most important of unpredictables, who will be a ‘good tourist’ however that it defined.
Most important though is the balance of the squad and it is for this purpose that I would suggest that McGeechan already has in mind the key components of his test side. It surely makes sense for the squad to be based around those central players and the rest of the players picked accordingly depending on whether they will blend, will be a like-for-like equivalent or can add something different.
This point is most clearly demonstrated in the selection of the fly halves. It is likely that McGeechan will have in mind the identity of the man to whom he wants to hand the shirt on 20 June in Pretoria. This could well be Stephen Jones, a similar player to Ronan O’Gara in that he is organised and un-fancy but without the Irishman’s limitations when it comes to launching a backline. When selecting his other 10s, he needs to decide whether he wants someone the introduction of whom would have no impact on the way the team plays; whether he wants the option to play a different, quicker game; or does he gamble with someone who may be suited to the South African conditions and can produce some magic without possessing the solidity and reliability of a classical 10?
O’Gara would be the man to step seamlessly in should some misfortune befall Jones, be it injury or loss of form. James Hook is more of a threat and has more tools in his box but is less of an organiser, Danny Cipriani the young bolter who can conjure up some magic. McGeechan must decide whether he would want O’Gara on the bench as a straight back up or a game-changer such as Hook or Cipriani. If the latter is the case, is there really any point in taking O’Gara who could always be flown out were Jones to get injured?
Perhaps O’Gara’s role would be in the midweek team who McGeechan would ideally want playing the same brand of rugby as the main side. A team run by Hook would be very different to one run by Jones and O’Gara and a player moving between the 2 would have to adapt quickly. Better to have 2 similar teams with similar 10s and a game-changer who can come off the bench as and when necessary.
Debates such as these apply to all sorts of positions. The selection of the back 5 of the pack will be a particular area of interest as there are so many decent options but the absolute key is selecting the right balance to take on a South African unit which is pretty much as good as any we have seen. Here too I would imagine that McGeechan has in mind who would be his ideal back row for the tests. He correctly says that each player will have a chance if he is in good form but he will certainly already have preferences.
All in all it is an unenviable task confronting McGeechan and his coaching team but he has shown before that he is a man who can achieve the right blend. Many will criticise and pick over the decisions that could have gone the other way. But McGeechan is the only man who matters and we must wish him all the best, now and over the course of the next 3 titanic months.
By Stuart Peel