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Lions winners and losers

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Simon Austin | 10:17 UK time, Wednesday, 22 April 2009

It's not often you hear an international coach refer to a player's sense of humour when justifying a controversial selection.

The Lions are unique though, and Warren Gatland's appraisal of the qualities Alan Quinlan will bring to the 37-man touring party sounded plausible.

"The thing we have stressed a lot as coaches is to make sure we have got characters in the team, people who are good on and off the field," the Lions forwards coach explained.

"Alan is a great personality, he brings a sense of humour and is tough and experienced - just the sort of person we're looking for."

Alan Quinlan and Paul O'Connell with the 2008 Heineken CupGatland, who knows the back-rower well from his period as Ireland coach, barely mentioned Quinlan's playing ability.

The inclusion of the 34-year-old, who didn't feature for Ireland in the Six Nations and recently said he had given up all hope of travelling to South Africa, was the biggest surprise when the Lions squad was announced on Wednesday.

It came at the expense of Tom Croft, the Leicester blind-side who was such a key part of England resurgence in the Six Nations.

Many rugby correspondents had pencilled the 23-year-old into their XV for the first Test against the Springboks in Durban and taken his inclusion in the squad as a given.

Gatland admitted Croft was the unluckiest of all the players who had been omitted.
"Croft is a very good athlete, a good line-out forward and played well for England (in the Six Nations). He is very, very unlucky."

Head coach McGeechan, who is taking charge of the Lions for a record fourth time, wants good tourists as well as good players though.

In 1997, the ebullient English wing John Bentley kept the players amused and entertained off the pitch and forced his way into the starting line-up for the third Test.

Perhaps the last two losing tours have lacked similar characters and McGeechan thinks Quinlan can fill this role.

"Quinlan is definitely someone like that," Gatland admitted. "Even if he's not involved in Test matches, he'll be one of the proudest players to put the Lions jersey on."

Skipper Paul O'Connell said his Munster and Ireland team-mate was "massively passionate; a great character who seems absolutely made for the Lions".

McGeechan was also keen to have a "bolter" in the squad, someone able to come from seemingly nowhere and fight for a Test place.

Irish lock Jeremy Davidson was a surprise squad selection in 1997, yet played in all three Tests before being voted players' player of the tour.

Defence coach Shaun Edwards explained: "Ian decided he wanted to take a bolter, there's no doubt about that, and he's a guy who backs his own opinion."Keith Earls is the This time it's Keith Earls, the exciting 21-year-old Ireland centre who has just two caps for his country.

Despite praising the player's "genuine pace", tackling ability and tenacity at the breakdown, Edwards made it pretty clear this was McGeechan's selection.

The defence coach had sympathy for his Wales charge Gavin Henson, who missed out on one of the centre berths.

"I'm a big fan of his - he's one of the best defensive players in the world," Edwards said.
"Unfortunately he's been blighted by injuries but I'm sure if there are any withdrawals in the midfield he will be considered as a replacement."

One of the closest calls was over the inclusion of Wales' Shane Williams, which is surprising when you consider he is the IRB player of the year.

Gatland, Williams' international coach, said the player had come perilously close to being omitted and his selection had only been rubber-stamped in "the last couple of days".

But Wales and Lions attack coach Rob Howley weighed in with a staunch defence of the player, who he described as "a game breaker with such innate talent".

"All international players go through dips in form and Shane is at the moment. I've got no doubt about his talent and maturity."

Ryan Jones, touted as the Lions skipper only last season, failed to make the cut.

Gatland, Edwards and Howley, who all work with the player for Wales, explained that he simply hadn't been good enough this season.

"I spoke to Ryan prior to the Ospreys-Scarlets game and said 'the Welsh coaches are fighting your corner mate, but you've got to give us something to fight with'," Howley said.

Unfortunately for Jones, he didn't manage to do so.

Leaving England's Delon Armitage out was a tougher decision altogether.

The full-back's pace, power and booming kicking had seemed ideally suited to the hard pitches and high altitude of South Africa.

His ability to play full-back, wing and centre also seemed valuable, yet a late surge from Leigh Halfpenny kept him out.

Edwards, a man who doesn't hand out praise lightly, was almost effusive in his assessment of the Wales wing.

"His performance for Cardiff against Gloucester last weekend was exceptional," he said.

"He scores tries and at altitude could perhaps kick a goal from his own half. He's certainly got a lot of poise and takes things in his stride.

"It was an extremely close call between those players and Ian has certainly got a great admiration for Armitage."

Do you think McGeechan and his coaches got these crucial close calls right?


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