Alex Massie

An Irish Grand Slam and a Lions Party

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It wasn't a great championship this year, though few in Ireland can be expected to give a damn about that. And while there are plenty of folk who might think that Ireland's Grand Slam (sixty one years in the waiting) was hardly vintage stuff, that's often been the case with Grand Slam winning sides. The great England team of the early 1990s didn't play much champagne rugby while outside observers might say the same thing, and with some reason too, of Scotland's twin triumphs in 1984 and 1990. Nonetheless, there's little denying that there was no truly outstanding team in the championship this year. Apart from their performance against France Ireland were efficient rather than spectacular and rather too reminiscent of to many joyless Munster teams of years gone by.

Wales, I'm glad to say, failed to live up to the hype. Perhaps now people will cease assuming that Warren Gatland is some kind of coaching genius. He's good but not that good. Still, Wales played their part in the best match of the tournament in what was a splendid, frighteningly physical encounter in Paris. The French themselves were infuriatingly inconsistent and their terrible performance at Twickenham was probably the worst effort of the year. If they can find an adequate pair of locks, however, then we all could be in trouble next season. England were beginning to look troublingly good by the end of the season. Then again, if Martin Johnson can't put the fear of god into his players who on earth could?

As for Scotland and Italy? Same old story. Some promise but no cigar. At least Frank Hadden didn't make a blunder on the scale of picking Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half. As Nick Mallett discovered it's tough to win internationals when you give the opposition a 20 point start. Still, Scotland will have a new coach next season but until the long-term fiscal and structural problems afflicting the game north of the border are fixed we shall continue to struggle.

But this is a Lions year which means half the fun of t is picking a touring party. It's very hard to see how the Lions can hope to triumph in South Africa, but for what it's worth - and because some commenters like this sort of thing - here's the party of 35 players I would take to South Africa:

Full-back:

Lee Byrne

Delon Armitage

Wing:

Tommy Bowe

Shane Williams

Thom Evans

Mark Cueto

Centre:

Brian O'Driscoll

Tom Shanklin

Riki Flutie

Gavin Henson

Fly-half:

Stephen Jones

Ronan O'Gara

James Hook

Scrum-half:

Mike Philips

Harry Ellis

Mike Blair

Loosehead:

Gethin Jenkins

Andrew Sheridan

Hooker:

Lee Mears

Jerry Flannery

Ross Ford

Tighthead:

Euan Murray

John Hayes

Phil Vickery

Second Row:

Paul O'Connell (Captain)

Alun-Wyn Jones

Donncha O'Callaghan

Nathan Hines

Back Row:

David Wallace

Ryan Jones

Stephen Ferris

Jamie Heaslip

Martyn Williams

Tom Croft

Simon Taylor

As you can see that's 11 Welshmen, 10 Irishmen, 8 Englishmen and 6 Scots. I admit that Simon Taylor's selection is in some ways a sentimental one but because of injury the poor lad has played just 35 minutes of rugby on his previous two Lions tours and can therefore be considered amongst the unluckiest Lions in history. It would be nice, if unlikely, for him to have another chance. Plus, he offers emergency cover for the second row.

Still, as I say, it's hard to see how we can hope to win the series, regardless of who is taken.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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