Care and Croft waiting in the wings
May 5, 2009
Another eye-catching display from Harlequins and England scrum-half Danny Care this weekend could see him handed a Lions call-up © Getty Images
The old warrior must have raised his eyes in thanks to the heavens - or Ian McGeechan - but there is nothing certain in sport and Johnson, who is expected to name his next squad after the Guinness Premiership final, could be about to lose a couple of his most prized assets.
England's eight-man representation in the initial Lions squad did the most limited damage to Johnson's plans for the summer trip to Argentina, which goes via Old Trafford for the first Test. Among those going to South Africa instead, Riki Flutey will be leaving Wasps to play in France next season so the converted Kiwi's England place must be in doubt in the future. Phil Vickery, Joe Worsley and Simon Shaw are known quantities without whom Johnson can tour to the foothills of the Andes safely and soundly. We will never know whether Paul Sackey and Tom Rees would have made the Lions cut, as both of them aggravated injuries two days before the announcement when they were playing for wasps against Bristol. At least one British newspaper has speculated the pair would have been going with the Lions, if fit, so their loss to Johnson might have been anticipated, anyway.
On the flipside, though, two of the nearly Lions, who have been very prominent with England this season, have seen their chances of a summer safari with McGeechan shoot skywards in recent days. First, Munster's Tomas O'Leary suffered that horrendous ankle break - very reminiscent of the injury suffered by Lawrence Dallaglio with the 2005 Lions and Danny Cipriani about this time last year. Scrum-halves around Britain and Ireland immediately pricked their ears up and checked their SMS inbox, not least England's Danny Care who must have been heartened that the Lions let it be known they would wait until at least the end of this week to name O'Leary's replacement. That gives Care the chance to do his stuff in a high-profile Guinness Premiership semi-final against London Irish on Saturday.
Care deserves a Lions call; had it not been for a daft accident at the start of this year's Six Nations Championshjip when he slipped on ice at the England team hotel and damaged his ankle ligaments, he may have kept Hary Ellis out of the England startting line-up, and snaffled the Lions berth which went to the Leicester man.
But the question with Care as with all potential Lions is whether he will fit into their game plan. With England last autumn he did not always seem to be on the wavelength of all his team-mates - maybe only properly with his Quins' club-mate at No.8, Nick Easter - when he was breaking around the fringes. It must be remembered, as this column always does, that this England team still getting to know each other.
The same will be true with the Lions. And the thought of Care scurrying away downfield while Ronan O'Gara or Stephen Jones at fly-half is a mile away, sitting deep as they often like to, may be troubling McGeechan's thoughts. The coach may yet plump for Chris Cusiter or someone else he can rely on to do what he wants with what is going to be very hard-won Lions possession. Over the long haul of a club season or an England campaign up to the next World Cup, however, Care can be the man at No.9. He has fantastic pace, a snappy pass and a try threat possessed by none of his rivals. And he is an uppity so-and-so which is, of course, a given in a top scrum-half.
The citing of Alan Quinlan for an alleged case of gouging in Munster's Heineken Cup defeat to Leinster could create a further Lions vacancy for a back-five forward. Leicester's Tom Croft - who started in the second row in the other Heineken Cup semi-final - appears to be everybody's tip to step in. It really was a shock - an outrage, even - when Croft did not make the first cut, after putting in as consistently excellent a season as it was possible to imagine for club and country.
But would a call for Croft make sense? If he was the wrong man when McGeechan drew up his squad, what makes him ideal now that one player may be going down, suspended? Shouldn't the Lions go for the more Quinlan-like Denis Leamy or one of the Scottish back-row foragers?
In fact, will 'Geech' call up anyone at all if Quinlan gets banned? Remember, he only selected 37 players in the first place because he was worried he would be short of men in the event of a Munster v Cardiff Blues Heineken Cup final on May 23. McGeechan backed the wrong horses there, although I suppose he had to make the contingency plan. Now that the Heineken final is Leicester v Leinster, that worry is gone and McGeechan can select from increased strength - or, to look at it another way, from a batch of 13 beaten semi-finalists from Munster and Cardiff Blues - for the first tour match on May 30. To pick no one at all would be the unkindest cut for Croft, but it would be logical.