Johnson urges Lions to learn lessons from SA

Martin Johnson has urged the British and Irish Lions to be creative with their selection policy when it comes to picking a squad for the 2009 tour of South Africa.

An enduring fascination is that players who have not shone or even played at all for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales—the four countries from which the team is drawn—can become stars when they put on the red shirt of the Lions.

That was the case in 1997 where a Lions squad captained by Johnson upset the odds to beat South Africa, then as now the reigning world champions, 2-1 in a Test series.

Uncapped English centre Will Greenwood secured a surprise call-up and former rugby league star John Bentley played a key role. Meanwhile the likes of unheralded Ireland duo Jeremy Davidson and Paul Wallace also made their mark.

“For the first time a Lions squad could be picked from games outside of what was then the Five Nations,” recalled Johnson, who went onto lead England to the 2003 World Cup title.

“The Heineken [European] Cup had been established,” he said.

“It meant a guy like Will Greenwood could be chosen on account of his performances for Leicester rather than England.

“John Bentley got selected while playing for Newcastle in the second division, Neil Back wasn’t in the England team at the time.

“And some people—guys like Ben Clarke and Will Carling—were left out when they were expected to tour. It proved a successful policy.”

Ian McGeechan was the coach in 1997 and it is possible the former Scotland centre, who as a player featured during the Lions unbeaten tour of South Africa in 1974, could be in charge of the best of British and Irish for a fourth time.

Although the Lions, who will be managed by Wales great Gerald Davies, who as a player took part in the 1968 tour of South Africa, are prepared to consider an overseas coach the indications are they would prefer someone from within one of the four Home Unions.

Few can match the record of McGeechan, currently director of rugby at European champions Wasps.

“Ian is a fantastic coach.
His selection policy in 1997 was outstanding,” said Johnson. “If Ian was available to coach the Lions then he’d have to be under serious consideration.”

The last Lions tour, in 2005, ended in an embarrassing 3-0 whitewash against New Zealand and widespread criticism of coach Clive Woodward’s decision to opt for an unusually large squad of 44 players for an 11-match campaign.

But former lock Johnson, who played under Woodward when the latter was helming England’s victorious World Cup campaign four years ago, said: “I don’t agree that the 2005 party was too big.

“In Australia in 2001 I was sat on the bench for one midweek game, just days before a Test match. Being involved in that midweek game meant extra training and travelling. Is that ideal preparation for a Test match? It’s not.” ‒ Sapa-AFP