Lions may come to regret Croft omission
April 22, 2009
Leicester flanker Tom Croft was widely tipped to get the nod for this summer's tour of South Africa © Getty Images
Tom Croft Keith Earls Leigh Halfpenny Ryan Jones Ian McGeechan Andy Powell Alan Quinlan Derek Quinnell Delme Thomas David Wallace Martyn Williams Joe Worsley
Lions coaches nearly always say they will be picking the form players and not on reputation but they often chicken out at the eleventh hour evoking the other old cliché 'form is temporary, class is permanent.'
Nobody can accuse Ian McGeechan and his fellow coaches of that. All those people - and there were quite a few - who had Ryan Jones down as hot favourite for the captaincy before Christmas are now looking pretty foolish.
He must be the most disappointed man in Britain and Ireland today but he can have no complaints. Whatever the reason - and it might have something to do with shifting between '6' and '8' - he has suffered a catastrophic loss of form and has paid the penalty.
I was particularly struck by Robert Howley's comment after the team was announced. The attack coach had been to see Jones play against the Scarlets last Saturday and said to him before kick-off, 'We're fighting your corner, mate, but you've got to give us something to fight with.'
Jones could not come up with the goods - unlike Leigh Halfpenny. My colleague Huw Richards has already eulogised about his performance at Twickenham - I was there too and would endorse it wholeheartedly - but it was proof that the selectors really did have an open mind right up to the final weekend. I am sure he was not in the squad before Saturday.
Tom Croft is probably not quite as disappointed - he's only just established himself in the England side and he's young with (hopefully) most of his career hopefully ahead of him - but I suspect he came closer to making the squad than Jones and I believe the selectors have made their biggest blunder by not taking him.
McGeechan has talked a lot about possible combinations and warns about pre-judging how they will work. In the back-row I think he has reduced his options by not taking Croft. He offers another line-out target but it is his speed which they will miss most.
The two number 7s in the squad, David Wallace and Martyn Williams, are both tremendous players, and I would certainly not have left one of them out for Croft but, but they are 32 and 33 years old respectively and have lost some of their pace.
Croft is just about the fastest man in the whole Leicester squad (I believe Tom Varndell just pipped him over 60 metres) and that could be crucial in South Africa where the grounds will be hard and the rugby fast and loose.
There is no way the Lions will win the physical battle in the back-row, although it should be one of the great battle fields of the series, so there may come a time when the Lions' coaches want to switch to a slightly wider and more open game.
Croft could have given them something different and, as the self-appointed champion of quick, skilful No 7s (I would have added in 'small' but Croft is 6ft 6ins and 16st 7lbs), I feel it is my duty to protest.
Andy Powell, Alan Quinlan and Joe Worsley can count themselves lucky to be on the trip in front of him.
There's a touch of romance about the selection of Keith Earls. It was not that unusual to have an uncapped player in a Lions squad in the old days - Delme Thomas in 1966 and Derek Quinnell in 1971to name just a couple - but these days that is impossible so to be picked on the strength of a single game, against Canada last November, is the equivalent.
He is certainly talented and versatile but he had better be good because he is there in front of some players who have proven class and not just potential. Big call that one! But selection was the easy part. Now the hard work begins. McGeechan and his cohorts have next to no time to turn these erstwhile enemies into blood brothers prepared to die for the cause.
He has always been adamant that there is no blueprint that you can roll out every four years believing that every challenge and every group of players is different.
Every coaching team is also different and it will be important for this group to hit it off. Four of them were together at Wasps so we know they respect each other but it was the way Jim Telfer, a Melrose headmaster with an old-fashioned (even then), authoritarian take on coaching, complemented McGeechan that helped to make the last tour to South Africa in 1997 such a success.
The first time they meet as a group will be when they go off for some 'high altitude' training in Granada in a couple of weeks time. I'm sure the medical team will have latest science at their disposal to prepare the Lions for playing on the high veldt but much, much more important will be the chemistry that happens or does not happen in that first week together.
For the next couple of months they are not Irish, Welsh, English or Scottish they are the 2009 Lions.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com