On the face of it, Lions Tours are absurd. Six weeks to throw together players from four different countries and get them playing well enough to challenge the World Champions? It’ll never work.
And yet every now and then, it does. As Jim Telfer says, the Lions are special, and somehow, the bonds that form between players that tour appear to be stronger than those that form between fellow countrymen when they come together for a couple of weeks before an international.
Ian McGeechan has seen it all before, and has so far been consistent in sticking to his formula – take the captaincy issue as an example. He will also be starting to look at combinations in key areas of the field that gel and that will work together – they may not be the best two or three individuals on tour, but collectively, they could have more impact against the Boks.
A number of key partnerships from previous tours spring to mind – Clarke, Winterbottom and Richards, Gibbs and Bateman, Henderson and O’Driscoll – and it has left me wondering who will stand out in 2009.
The halfbacks are obviously a key partnership, and before Tomas O’Leary was injured, he could well have started alongside Ronan O’Gara as the Grand Slam-winning pairing. Now though, Stephen Jones may be preferred if Mike Philips is chosen at scrum-half in order to capitalise on the prior knowledge of how each other plays.
The back row is another vital component of any team, and the Irish contingent of Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip could be the preferred combination. It helps that these three could be the best individuals in their position as well, but they have certainly shown how effectively they operate together, so why would you change it? Tom Croft, Andy Powell and Joe Worsley will have other ideas, but an all-Irish back row is a distinct possibility.
The Welsh back three could also be kept together if Leigh Halfpenny does join the tour as anticipated – Halpenny, Shane Williams and Lee Byrne is quite a handy unit, and the two diminutive Welsh wingers could provide the perfect foil for the power merchants that are likely to be in every other position.
What are your thoughts? What are your favourite combinations from previous tours? Who do you think will stand out this time?