How to beat ‘the unbeatable’

On May 28th the plaudits will be queuing up to crown Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona not only the Kings of Europe, but undoubtedly one of the greatest club sides ever to have played the game, if they are to repeat their achievements of two seasons ago and once again they topple Sir Alex Ferguson’s United in convincing style in the Champions League Final. Guardiola’s side, driven by the inspired little Argentinean master Lionel Messi amongst others, will start the game as overwhelming favourites, with pundits and coaches alike scratching their heads as to how the Catalan giants can be beaten. So, the Million Dollar question remains, can it be done? How will the wily Scotsman attempt to achieve the seemingly impossible task of shackling the brimming talent at the Spanish Champions disposal?

The important thing to remember is that Barcelona are human. Just. Sir Alex is canny enough to know that although Barca are definitely in place to join the pantheon of great European sides (although perhaps not the greatest, as James Lawton so eloquently debated in his superb column in the Independent), they are still under pressure to deliver the elusive duo of back to back Champions League victories that sets the great apart from the good and would serve to prove they can dominate Europe over a period of time. One must only look back to how they fluffed their lines against Jose Mourinho’s disciplined Inter Milan side the previous season and more recently in the Copa Del Rey final against the same nemesis’s Real Madrid side. Although their semi-final victory against the same opponents in this year’s Champions League semi will have helped banish such doubts, there remains the possibility that their imperiousness is not entirely all conquering. We must remember that Messi and co have had their fortune so far in this year’s competition, most obviously with Pepe’s sending off proving the turning point of the semi-final first leg. Equally so, for all their dominance against Arsenal in the quarter finals was compounded by another questionable decision to send off Robin Van Persie, and even then had Nichlas Bendtner proved a cooler head in front of goal, Arsenal could have pinched the away goal that could have sent Barca out. Although Jose Mourinho was perhaps ill-advised in pointing this out so emphatically in post match comments, (along with previous good fortune enjoyed by the Spanish side against his Chelsea side two years ago), it is true that they have, as all winners tend to, had the rub of the green somewhat. United must hope it is they, and not Barcelona who are on the receiving end of lady luck’s telling influence come the end of May.

Back into the realms under their control, how do United set out against the endlessly creative side they will face? Do they follow the example followed by the cartoon villain-esque Mourinho and face the accusations of anti-football that the Portuguese was forced to endure and was, for Real Madrid at least, to prove fruitless. Or do they pick up the gauntlet thrown down by their challengers and go for it at Wembley Stadium? The answer I believe lies somewhere in the middle. United will need to remain disciplined and vigilant defensively for the whole 90 minutes (or beyond) to stand any chance at the National stadium and have a back four well suited to doing so, if the Iron fist of Nemanja Vidic is to sit alongside the velvet glove of the classy Rio Ferdinand. Equally pertinently, the full backs, most likely to be Patrice Evra and the recently favoured Fabio Da Silva, with have to remain strong in the wide areas and as a team, the Red Devils will have to cut out the cute interplay on the edge of the box that has become Barcelona’s trademark in recent times. It is in these areas where Messi, Iniesta and Xavi in particular like to thrive, in the space between defence and midfield in which it is so hard to defend unless someone puts their hand up and takes responsibility. It is for this reason I believe Sir Alex will go with his favoured 5 in midfield European set up, with two central midfielders in particular to be responsible for sitting fairly deep for this very purpose. How he would like a fit Owen Hargreaves for such a role, but in his long-term absence it looks set to be taken on by Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher, whose suspension in the previous final showdown with Barcelona was much emphasised by the United hierarchy as one of the key reasons for their downfall. On the wings, Antonio Valencia and Ji-Sung Park look to be rewarded for their endeavour which would leave the mercurial talents of Nani as an option from the bench only, as would be the case for second in line striking talents Javier Hernandez (despite his vital strike against Chelsea and Dimitar Berbatov. This just leaves the final midfield place up for grabs and is likely to be a straight shootout between two Old Trafford legends, the evergreen pairing of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Although both would provide key quality of possession (something which is vital at the best of times but not least against the best exponents of keep-ball), I fear Scholes’ recklessness in the tackle may count against him on the big stage once again – after all the importance of keeping ten men on the pitch against Guardiola’s team has unarguable precedent. On such key decisions, the outcome could hang.

Having all but won this year’s Premiership, United’s thoughts will inevitably already be on the challenge lying in wait at Wembley. The accusation that has dogged United team all season, despite now having all but wrapped up their position as Champions elect, is that they are simply the best of a bad bunch in a distinctly underwhelming year for English football in terms of talent. A  Champions League win would force such naysayers to concede that not only a dramatic rethink would be needed, but that this side would be ready to take their place amongst the pantheon already containing those of the class of 99 and even 68. The great Barcelona may stand between them and such a legacy, but write off the Great Scot and his charges at your peril.

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The obligatory World Cup rant!

And so once again we look back on an England World Cup campaign bitterly disappointed. And although we may feel the injustice of Frank Lampard’s phantom goal (an event of which I do not share the same view as BBC commentator Guy Mowbray, who described it as purely “academic”), it cannot disguise how from start to finish England were far, far short of what was needed from them in South Africa. From day one’s jittery performance against the United States, England never really got out of first gear and were taken apart by a distinctly average German side, albeit in a clinical manner befitting of the nation who always seem to get the best out of their eleven players – something which England consistently fail to do. One can only fear what a rampant Argentina might have done had Lampard’s apparent equaliser been given – Lionel Messi would have been licking his lips watching some of the defending on display in Bloemfontein yesterday. Such a situation once again begs the question of the England team – how can a bunch of such talented individuals chronically underperform so spectacularly on the world stage?

The answer I believe lies in the question – England are exactly that – a bunch of admittedly talented individuals who simply do not fit together in a team once they cross that white touchline. We can’t simply castigate players such as Rooney, Lampard, Gerrard and Terry as overrated, as we have clearly seen hard evidence of all of these players performing at the highest level for their respective clubs in the Champions League. It is merely the fact that when they pull on their three-lions adorned shirts they become not a team but a loose collection of individual talent who although showing glimpses of what talents they do possess, are made to look amateurish by sides who quite simply work more effectively together as a unit. Take Bob Bradley’s USA team as an example – they only have a smattering of above average players in Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, but through a strong work ethic and playing to their strengths they were able to top the group over our own team of some of world football’s biggest names. Such a lack of unity and cohesion in our own team was made glaringly apparent by a German side that are quite simply the antithesis of Fabio Capello’s England in the respect that they get everything out of their team, despite having what many would regard as comparably a paucity of top class players. Once life was made easy for them by the cast number of English mistakes, they were able to simply pass it though and use the space available to them as a unit – a feat achieved only once in the tournament for England, in Heskey and Gerrard’s one-two in Rustenburg.

So how do England attempt to find the ability to make the team as a whole as good as the sum of it’s parts, in time for the next major tournament, 2012’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine? I believe the answer lies in a fresh start in both the personnel on and off the field. Fabio Capello’s world cup began in troubled circumstances after the Capello Index affair and speculation linking the Italian with a return to his home country with Inter Milan and although his bullishness and culture of fear is to be partially admired in the light of what came before in the England camp under previous managers, it seemingly affected brittle confidence and can only have contributed to the basic uncharacteristic errors made by usually top class players. His substitutions at times left a lot to be desired (Heskey for Defoe when chasing the game?) and his pig headedness in failing to try the Gerrard in the hole/Joe Cole on the left in either the lead up to or in the group stages themselves could have seen a different England emerge from the tunnel than the distinctly undercooked one we were treated to for the whole tournament. For me there is only one option left – for Capello to come to an agreement with the F.A.and do the decent thing – accept that he has tried and failed to bring to an end the 44 ‘years of hurt’ and instead to offer the most consistently successful English manager of the last ten years one last shot at the big time. Having taken a similarly disillusioned Tottenham side from Premiership also-rans to Champions League place winners, Harry Redknapp has proved he is the right man for the job.  If we learn anything from another abysmal world cup it should be this.

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Crass and Wonderful? Hearn’s new snooker vision will divide sport

And so the final of the 2010 World Masters Snooker came down to a thrilling final frame decider in which the increasingly impressive Mark Selby overcame the ever enigmatic yet brilliant Ronnie O’Sullivan. Looking on at the Wembley Arena was snooker’s new promotion supremo, Barry Hearn, the man charged with reinventing what many had regarded as a dying sport and a man whose latest proposals suggest that he is certainly a fan of the tense winner takes all frames that we saw late on Sunday evening. In the aftermath of Selby’s victory and a thrilling tournament overall, Hearn unveiled plans for a 64-man one frame knockout, in which players are to have “12 minutes a frame, a 20 second shot clock” and “no time to fart around”. The Londoner, whose success in galvanising the Darts game has led to this latest mission, even proposed that upon losing players should be ushered down a “Walk of Shame” during which “the Grim Reaper comes out and covers you with his cloak”. While the man himself described his brainchild as “crass and wonderful”, Times reporter Phil Yates lamented snooker’s “grim future”. So what does a new decade hold in store: a revolution or evolution for the sport?

Ironically Hearn’s proposed spicing up of the game has come on the back of a tournament which required very little extra spice. From beginning to end the Wembley crowd were treated to a fiercely competitive standard of play from start to finish, and many of the best of six matches leading up to the final were taken to nail biting, down to the wire finishes. The early rounds saw talent both new and old on show, with Shaun Murphy defeating the once imperious Stephen Hendry, the halting of a potential fairytale comeback for wildcard Jimmy White and China’s great hope Ding Junhui being comprehensively beaten by the eventual tournament winner. In the semi finals, O’ Sullivan who had continued to do just enough to see off his opponents despite remaining his own toughest critic, squeaked past the resurgent Mark Williams while the eventual champion overcame World Number 2 Stephen Maguire 6-3. The previous round had seen the increasingly impressive youngster Mark Allen, failed to add Selby to his list of scalps that included World Number 1 John Higgins, in a hugely entertaining contest and perhaps one of the games of the tournament. The final however was to prove a fitting crescendo, with both players inspiring each other to very near their top levels of play, culminating in the sudden death decider which saw a left handed O’Sullivan missed green prove costly. Whereas a lot of focus rested on potential changes to the way the game is presented, the action on the table did more than enough to make such musings irrelevant.

The minor changes already introduced by Hearn did however play their part in making this year’s tournament such a refreshing start to the season. The debut of Player’s entrance music, very much in the mould of their darts counterparts, often took the edge of the early frame tension and provided an amusing sideline to the action on the baize – none more so than in the case of Mark King’s hip-hop styled introduction (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1MJBFhNErg). Equally, it was good to hear the Wembley crowd play a part and relish the encouragement of Hearn to get involved in the game, by providing a lively yet respectful atmosphere around the table. This was most evident in the Allen – Selby clash, during which both players shared banter with each other and the crowd alike, whilst still producing top drawer play, a sight seldom seen in the days of professionalised sport. Indeed it is this balance which Hearn, along with his supporters within the game, most notably the sport’s most famous face “The Rocket”, must strive to encourage. Undoubtedly the straight talking former boxing promoter is right in his assertion that snooker needs to shake off its fusty image but by making everything surrounding the sport the main attraction rather than the play itself he is playing a dangerous game.The Masters proved that although snooker needs greater exposure, the players themselves can provide the tools through which this can be achieved; by producing enduringly thrilling classic encounters as seen last weekend. Although farting around it may be, he may want to consider his next shot a lot longer than his proposed time limits would have him do.

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Campbell’s County Sideshow an embarrassment

How did we not see it coming? A former England international centre half, rated by Harry Redknapp as still being in the top 6 players in his position even in the entire Football League, goes to League Two’s Notts County who in the 2008/09 season finished 19th, a mere ten points above the relegation zone. How exactly did we all think it would end?

 

Well perhaps not quite so soon – after one game and one defeat, at Morecambe’s Christie Park, Sol Campbell it is reported told County bosses that he would never be able to adapt to life in the basement division and despite the 5-year contract he had signed only a few weeks previously, chose to walk out on the club with just the one appearance to his name, at the expense of an estimated £160,000. How such a ridiculous episode should ever have been allowed to occur is anyone’s guess and Campbell now fully deserves the enforced time he will receive out in the cold, prevented as he is by the FA ruling from joining another club until the January transfer window reopens.

 

The Campbell transfer saga perhaps best encapsulates the Magpies’ attempt to spend their way out of League Two and embark on a triumphant march up the league, funded by the recent takeover by the still to some extent unknown quantity of Munto finance and Oadbak Investments Ltd and overseen by the newly appointed Director of Football, Sven-Goran Eriksson. However, as we have seen money does not always automatically bring success and only through sensible management can anything meaningful be achieved. The Campbell transfer was undoubtedly not part of any well thought out strategy, but merely an effort at collecting big names in the way that a child might collect football stickers. When the former Tottenham and Arsenal defender’s signing was announced, County’s season having started in spectacular fashion stuttered somewhat, perhaps unsettled by the unnecessary pressure’s piled on the team by the management’s transfer activities. While other high profile signings such as Kasper Schmiechel and Lee Hughes have fit neatly into the work ethic of MacParland’s side, it was inevitable that Campbell would not.

 

Manchester City take note. It has already observed by many commentators that in last Sunday’s epic Manchester derby, City’s real star was not one of the summer’s multi-million pound superstar signings, but the nomadic enigma that is Craig Bellamy. Whilst the man formerly dubbed “the nutter with the putter” on Merseyside may not have the talents of someone like Robinho, City manager Mark Hughes realises the importance of such including such hard-working players in the team building process, even if this is sometimes at the expense of big names such as the aforementioned Brazilian. This is something County manager MacParland has failed to maintain at County, instead perhaps accepting the degree of control from above that saw Campbell attempt to drop down the divisions in such a bizarre fashion. Indeed, if he fails to follow the example of Hughes, who has to some extent managed to resist any attempt of directorial ‘control-freakery’, it may cost him his job.

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Touring Lions begin to roar

After the disappointing start against Royal XV last weekend, what a refreshing sight it was to see the British and Irish Lions hit back at their critics with a comprehensive thrashing of their South African Super 14 namesakes at the future Third Test venue, Ellis Park, last night. The 74 points and ten tries scored by the tourists was the second highest ever managed on their journeys to South Africa and what was perhaps most impressive was not merely the extent of the victory but the manner in which it was achieved. In stark contrast to the disjointed display in the tour opener, Ian McGeechan’s charges showed a cohesiveness that is so desperately sought when the best of the British Isles are brought together into one party, and despite the obvious deficiencies in the quality of the opposition, the side showed remarkable unity in putting them away at such an early stage. Let us not get carried away, given history has taught us that Lions tour are inevitably a marathon and not a sprint, but let us see last night’s romp to victory as a statement of intent that the Lions are in South Africa to do only one thing; to win.

Here is my team for the first test on current form and barring injury (and hopefully my own national bias!):

1. Gethin Jenkins (Wales): Regarded by some to be the in-form loose head of world rugby at the minute and difficult to see past his selection.

2. Lee Mears (England): The combative hooker is strong in the loose and solid at the set piece, seemingly more so than Matthew Rees at the key area of the lineout.

3. Phil Vickery (England): Bags of experience coupled with a physicality that will be much needed on the front line of the Lions battlefront.

4. Paul O’Connell (Ireland, Captain): The Lions natural leader, will be key in the lineout battle with Matfield and Botha.

5. Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales): Growing in stature with every performance. Hits the gain line and works hard all over the field.

6. Tom Croft (England): How was this man was not picked in the original touring party? Adds options to the lineout and dynamism to the back row.

7. David Wallace (Ireland): Has the advantage at the moment, but the challenge of Martyn Williams makes this one simply too close to call – a nice problem for the selectors to have.

8. Jamie Heaslip (Ireland): With Andy Powell having yet to have had a big chance stake a claim, Heaslip’s unflashy approach has stood him in good stead as yet.

9. Mike Phillips (Wales): His sheer size sees him stand out above the other scum half choices – the Welshman will take every thing the South Africans can throw at him and give it back with interest.

10. Stephen Jones (Wales): Another close call for the selectors but Jones more robust nature than the admittedly brittle O’Gara will give the Lions one less thing to worry about come the 1st Test.

11. Shane Williams (Wales): Despite current form not being sparkling, the southern hemisphere conditions suit his expansive game. Too good to leave out and experience should see him picked ahead of the pacey Monye.

12. Jamie Roberts (Wales): Seems to have addressed the problems of the Six Nations and is emerging as more than a battering ram in midfield. The perfect foil for BOD.

13. Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland): Back to his vintage best. Jinking past opponents in attack and smashing them back in defence. Will hope to banish memories of 2005.

14. Tommy Bowe (Ireland): Looks ever increasingly like a big match player. The Ospreys wing could be one of the surprise packages of the summer.

15. Lee Byrne (Wales): Despite full-back being one of the positions the Lions are blessed with quality in, Byrne remains the outstanding candidate for the jersey.

And another thing…

·Time for Fed to complete the set: With Rafael Nadal’s shock defeat in the French Open, Roger Federer will never get a better opportunity to complete his clean sweep of Grand Slams. If he goes on to win at Roland Garros, Wimbledon looks set to become another epic encounter between the rivals – unfortunately for patriotic “Murray” maniacs.

· Kaka’nt believe it: The continuing transfer saga over Brazilian superstar Kaka reveals how ridiculous football’s spending culture has become. If it continues in this vein, football will collapse in the mountains of debt at which Europe’s leading clubs operate.

· Six and out?: Is it just me or is anyone else struggling to get enthusiastic about the upcoming twenty20 world cup – never has a tournament been so specifically tailored to merely cash in on the euphoria surrounding the ridiculously overblown IPL and shortened form of the game. Roll on the Ashes.

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Cardiff a nugget away, but Tigers roar on

After a thrilling Heineken Cup Semi-Final this Sunday, the rugby world was left with a bitter taste in its collective mouth as Leicester Tigers became the first beneficiaries of the rugby penalty shoot-out, while Cardiff Blues and Martyn Williams in particular were to prove the unlucky losers. To finish a game, which had unexpectedlty jolted back into life after a spirited late comeback from the Welsh side, with such an unsatisfying “lottery” of kicks as it has been dubbed, ensured it will not be memorable for the right reasons. It matters not that on the balance of play it was certainly the more wily Leicester side that deserved to progress to take on Leinster in Ediburgh later this month. The fact remains that at the end of 80 minutes, and then the 20 additional minutes of extra-time, the two teams remained deadlocked at 26 all, and for the Blues to lose in such a manner left supporters and players of both sides feeling that in truth they had not lost at all. As the excellent Geordan Murphy commented sportingly: “It is a tough way to win a game. Although I felt we were the better side on the day, we would have preferred to win it a nicer way. I feel genuinely sorry for the Cardiff boys as that could have easily been us getting knocked out.” So what alternative could have prevented such an unsatisfying end for all concerned?

Cardiff coach Dai Young proposed that “to have sudden death with both sides playing would seem a fairer way of doing things” and few could argue that this should have been the method in place for solving these kind of tense occasions. The “golden point” system, similar to that used in American football for instance, would not only provide a much fairer way to separate two teams, it would a generally more well rounded conclusion to a fiercely contested game of rugby. One must only cast their minds back to the late drop goal victories of Jeremy Guscott and the Lions in 1997, England and Johnny Wilkinson in 2003 and more recently to Ireland and Ronan O’Gara in 2009 to see how thrilling one strike of the boot can be to win a game and in turn immortalise that figure thereafter. It remains preferable in the sporting narrative to create a hero rather than isolate a villain.

It was perhaps the cruellest of ironies that the villain of the piece last weekend should have been Cardiff’s stalwart and one of Welsh rugby’s most consistent performers in recent times. For someone who has given so much to the region’s cause to effectively end their chances of reaching the Heineken Cup Final for the first time in over ten years was not only a damning indibtement of the shoot-out system, but a heartbreaking blight on the man’s career. Williams of all people does not deserve such an unwanted accolade and yet it should be the case that he remains the only man to miss a sudden death kick under such a system, if justice is done and the it is scrapped. Let us also hope that the nuggety flanker overcomes this ordeal, secures that elusive First Lions Test cap this summer and that the Blues failure will pale into significance next to a victorious tour to South Africa under his belt.

And Another Thing…

  • I hate to say I told you so…: Ricky Hatton’s demise at the hands of Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas in Saturday’s wee hours was predicted by yours truly in this very blog mere months ago. I wish I had been proved wrong after the Pac Man proceeded to tarnish another reputation, this time within two rounds, using his truly awesome speed and power. Next stop: Floyd “the Money” Mayweather.
  • Six of the Best: Barcelona’s drubbing of Real Madrid was one of the finest displays of pure attacking football I have witnessed and only the stoniest hearted of patriotic neutrals will hope for anything other than a win for the Catalans in this year’s English dominated tournament.
  • Snookered on the Red: Why has so much of this year’s Snooker World Championship been banished to the obscurity of the red button. This year provided a fine tournament, yet the BBC still prioritises it’s endless stream of daytime antiques and property shows, such as bargain hunt, leaving snooker fans hunting around themselves, through a stream  of irritating menu screens.

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Lions choose Celtic flavour for “pinnacle of rugby”

So, the impossible selection has been made. Rugby players among all the four nations will wake up for the first time today having learnt whether they will among the 37 hopefuls who will travel to South Africa this summer, all of whom will fiercely contest the test places which commentators have been falling over themselves to describe as being “the pinnacle of the game”. And as expected their will be some left ruing their failure to convince Ian McGeechan and co that their presence was needed, whilst others occupy those few surprise choices which emerge on the selection of any Lions touring party. Ultimately, have they got it right? At this early stage it is difficult to say and without looking to sit on the fence, the proof will be in the pudding. It is no surprise that all but three of Ireland’s Grand Slam clinching side make the cut, nor perhaps that Wales will represent thirteen of the spots on the plane to South Africa. Although many fans and pundits alike may bemoan the failure to include more of the resurgent English side, it is through the virtues displayed throughout the tournament by the Irish and Welsh Celtic cousins that will decide the Lions fate in the southern hemisphere. Where the three tests and warm up games will all be decided will be in matching the physicality and pace that the South Africans display week in week out in the domestic Super 14 competition, and also in keeping discipline in the face of such an onslaught – something which both Declan Kidney and now Lions forwards coach Warren Gatland emphasised in their teams play throughout the tournament and something which as yet Martin Johnson has been yet to ensure amongst his own charges. Scotland too can complain little about their worst showing in a Lions party since 1930, as their wretched Six Nations campaign gave little ammunition for Lions head coach and proud Scotsman McGeechan to push for the case of some of his fellow countrymen.

Nevertheless, although the make up of the squad in nationality was as should be expected in view of the respective International formbook, the announcement did provide us with a few shocks as to who were to be those chosen from each nation. Tom Croft will count himself incredibly unlucky not to be included, transforming as he did the England back row mid-tournament in the Six Nations, and Danny Care will be ruing his indiscipline against Ireland costing himself a place amongst the scrum halfs, especially as he seems more suited to the physical challenge than the preferred Harry Ellis. Equally Mike Blair will be disappointed that playing in such a poor side has counted against him in this case and Dwayne Peel frustrated he has had not more of a chance to stake a claim since his return to the Welsh squad. Places at full back and on the wing seem to have been equally closely contested and Delon Armitage must’ve been close to capturing a place as a utility back. However, the selections of the talented Leigh Halfpenny, Luke Fitzgerald and powerful Ugo Monye, holding off as they did the challenge of names such as Paul Sackey, Mark Cueto, Mark Jones or Simon Danielli, shows a sign of intent from the Lions management to match the pace and talent of their opposite numbers, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen.

Club form seems to have played heavy on the mind of the selectors, indicative in the triumph of the Cardiff Blues’ Andy Powell over Welsh team-mate and captain Ryan Jones. Ospreys’ poor display in Munster in the Heineken Cup Quarter Final has seemingly cost both he and his club mate James Hook a place on the list, whereas both Cardiff Blues and more noticeably Munster players, after both reaching the semi-finals impressively, form the nucleus of the squad. Both McGeechan and Lions manager Gerald Davies will hope that the “Munster mob” and in-form Blues men who take the trip can transform their impressive displays in European domestic competition to the grandest of stages come June. Such hopes see two players largely unrecognised by Ireland’s selectors take two places which could very well have gone to more established names, and it will be left to the speedy James Earls and renowned hard-man Alan Quinlan to justify this show of faith.

The selection of Paul O’ Connell as skipper further illustrates the extent to which this team has been made around the model of Munster and the Lions will hope they can emulate the Irish side’s ability to front up and bring their own brand of hostility, aggression and resolve as an away team, as well as producing a brand of attacking rugby that can triumph in South Africa. How then will they fare? Many have been offering gloomy predictions in recent months and it certainly does look a formidable task that awaits them. However, we must not forget that the South Africa side should have been beaten by Wales in the last round of Autumn Internationals and did not play Ireland in their tour of the British Isles. Equally, they finished bottom of the last Tri-Nations table and despite their triumph in the 2007 World Cup Final they do not have the same air of invincibility as the opponents of the last Lions tour, the All Blacks. Jeremy Guscott has backed the underdogs to triumph 2-1 as they did in 1997 thanks to his late drop goal and with my heart ruling my head somewhat, I am predicting the same. Let us hope the Lions bite is as strong as their roar.

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