When Tom Shanklin was ruled out of the Lions tour to South Africa, the rumour mills went into overdrive. Who would replace him? Delon Armitage, the English full-back who can play at centre and was a surprise omission from the Lions squad and James Hook, the Wales out-half , were two names consistently mentioned. The English media insisted that Head Coach Ian McGeechan would increase the English representation on the panel (the number of English players selected was well behind the number of Welsh and Irish players selected) by adding either Armitage or Danny Cipriani. In Ireland, after a string of impressive performances, Gordon D’Arcy of Leinster was much talked about as Shanklin’s replacement. After the Heineken Cup semi-final win over Munster, D’Arcy was regarded in some quarters as a definite.
Today, Ian McGeechan has announced that he will not be replacing Shanklin. This leaves the Lions with four natural centres, although Luke Fitzgerald can fill in at centre (his usual position is on the wing).Of the four centres (Brian O’Driscoll, Keith Earls, Jamie Roberts and Riki Flutey) only O’Driscoll has experience on the Lions tour. Shanklin had been on the 2005 side and offered a perfect foil for O’Driscoll. Shanklin gives some much-needed physicality to the midfield, something that is worth more than its weight in gold when playing against the Springboks.
Many pundits had predicted that McGeechan would pick James Hook, who can play at centre but plays naturally at full-back, to cover the two out-halves Ronan O’Gara and Stephen Jones. This leaves the Lions dangerously understaffed at both centre and out-half. An injury to O’Driscoll, O’Gara or Jones could be disastrous for the Lions.
Another question which will now be raised is whether McGeechan will pick a replacement for the suspended Alan Quinlan. With six players left to cover the back row, perhaps McGeechan will not call up another back row. The pack generally looks well covered, with five second rows, three hookers and four props.
McGeechan’s replacement policy (and selection policy in general) is wholly different to that of previous head coaches on Lions tours. McGeechan initially named a 37-man squad, while in 2005 Sir Clive Woodward took a 44-man squad to New Zealand AND Graham Henry also took 44 on the tour to Australia in 2001. The ominous similarities with the winning tour in 1997 are there for all to see. The Lions are coached by Ian McGeechan, they are now one man off the number (35) selected by McGeechan in 1997 and South Africa are World Champions.
One marked difference, however, is that there were just four Irishmen on the 1997 tour, and none were based in Ireland. Twelve years later, and Ireland accounts for the biggest representation on the Lions panel, with at least twelve set to travel, and only one (Tommy Bowe of Ospreys) is based outside Ireland.