Flair Care Waits For Lions Call

Ed PearceCorrespondent IApril 27, 2009

We all expected there to be wounded Lions before the pride of Britain and Ireland even gathered to fly to South Africa, and on Friday Tomas O'Leary became the first leonine casualty, severely damaging his ankle in Munster's clash with the Scarlets.

Luckily the scrum-half cupboard is not as bare as the outside-half position, with at least three players in the running to replace the unlucky Irishman on the plane south.

Dwayne Peel has been out of favour with the new Welsh regime, not even picked for the initial Six Nations squad as he struggled to hold down a regular starting place at Sale, but the quality of his passing will always put him in the frame. Journalists love describing the "slick delivery" or "silver service" that make him a fly-half's dream at the base of the scrum.

This, however, depends on the slight Welshman imposing himself on the game sufficiently to drive his pack forward and set the base for his sleight of hand and speedy running.   Mike Phillips, Harry Ellis and O'Leary all fit the highly physical mould of McGeechan's 2009 squad—they are tough, aggressive scavengers who will give as good as they get all over the pitch.

The willowy Peel will always represent a more classical alternative to such men, but having rejected this once it seems unlikely that the Lions management would plump for it this time around.

Mike Blair is one small man who, on last year's form, would defy stylistic preference through sheer class and all-round performance, but Ian McGeechan's stated desire for men in form has probably cost him more than his diminutive stature.

Peter Stringer is another pocket dynamo of proven class, briefly wresting the number nine jersey off O'Leary against Scotland and replacing his fellow Munsterman late on to help seal the emerald Grand Slam in Cardiff.  

He allies superior speed of pass to great tenacity and all the experience of 89 caps for Ireland, many of them alongside Ronan O'Gara. As he showed against England, Stringer can change the pace of a game as a substitute, a useful attribute indeed for a back-up player. The Highveld will be no place for novices.

Yet I am expecting a man with no more than nine England caps to take O'Leary's place on the plane. McGeechan has already sprung bigger surprises, with Alan Quinlan providing a wise and by all accounts wisecracking head, and Keith Earls and Ugo Monye as potential "bolters" for the Test XV.

Danny Care is just 22, but his early season form for Harlequins catapulted him into the England side to start all four autumn internationals, only to succumb to freak injury and the opportunism of Harry Ellis during the Six Nations campaign. 

He has a strong all-round game and an impressive record of taking his chances since coming on for Richard Wrigglesworth against New Zealand last summer.

He finally got his chance in the final round of the Six Nations when Ellis was stretchered from the field after 16 minutes and showed just the spirit the Lions may need in June with a game-clinching drop goal late on.

Care has been doing his best to catch the eye at club side Harlequins, and coach Dean Richards revealed that McGeechan had come to watch the young half-back in action two weeks ago, before naming his squad of 37.

"Whether they'll take Danny or Dwayne Peel, you never know," offered Richards. "It depends whether they go for experience or technical ability or just flair." Rugby is a hard-nosed game these days, but the Lions supremo certainly knows the value of a few jokers in the pack.

I reckon there might just be room for one more.