Those rugby fans looking forward one year to the tour to New Zealand will be a lot more sanguine about the British and Irish Lions’ chances of repeating the rare success of 1971 than they were before the various touring parties left the British Isles.
Not only did England win a series Down Under for the first time ever but Ireland beat South Africa in their own back yard; a mighty achievement even if their opposition are in some turmoil.
Wales may have been Black-washed but they, too, emerge with credit from the summer. An abrupt change of tactics saw them play some adventurous running rugby that resulted in five tries in the opening two Tests against an All Blacks team not noted for giving the opposition an easy anything.
Just imagine what Warren Gatland’s side might have achieved had he looked to utilise traditional Welsh virtues – pace, movement and slight of hand – throughout his nine-year tenure. As it was they pushed the All Blacks hard in the first two Tests before running out of steam but only after exposing cracks in the Kiwis’ much-vaunted armour. Patience is required near the New Zealand line and accuracy but keep hold of the ball and recycle and the All Blacks’ defence is vulnerable.
And the Scots did what they had to do, if not too much more, beating Japan twice in the sort of hot, humid conditions that are only ever replicated at Murrayfield in a beer tent.
There are not many Scots in the mix but you fancy a fully fit Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor would not be far away and, while Stuart Hogg is undoubtedly the best attacking full-back available, he misses out to Jared Payne due to defence.
My pack is top heavy with English forwards, five in all, but that is for obvious reasons, with ample support from the Irish. WP Nel may yet come into his own at tighthead and might have made the starting XV had his performances come against one of the top ranked teams rather than the Brave Blossoms.
Stand-off was the big issue because whoever coaches the Lions will be spoiled for choice with George Ford, Jonny Sexton if fit, Dan Biggar and Finn Russell all more than capable of doing a shift. I have opted for Owen Farrell because he is the best all-round tactician and he kicks goals from all corners. The Lions can’t afford to be too flash, they don’t have the time required, but Farrell will ensure they play in the right parts of the field, Saracens style.
If there is any “takeaway” from the season just ended it is the power of a top-class coach to inspire a team to attain heights they never imagined they could scale, which is pretty much the job description for any Lions coach heading to New Zealand.
He needs to make an impact in a very short time but Eddie Jones has repeatedly ruled himself out of the equation. Even if the Aussie changed his mind it’s difficult to imagine the RFU granting him the one-year sabbatical required.
Gatland’s side with 13 Welshmen squeezed past an ordinary Australian team three years ago by 2-1 and only in the third Test did the Lions make their obvious superiority count on the scoreboard. Furthermore it has taken the Wales boss nine long years to realise that his power game, aka “Warrenball”, isn’t good enough to trouble the big boys in the playground, which is approximately eight years later than the rest of the rugby world.
I’d plump for Joe Schmidt, who has made an instant impact in every head role he has taken so far, winning a European Cup with Leinster and the Six Nations with Ireland in his first season with each respective team. If selected and if available, Schmidt will probably turn to his old mucker Vern Cotter to whip in the forwards. I have picked Alun Wyn Jones as skipper because the veteran Welsh lock commands respect across the board.