When WoC looked at its twitter feed yesterday morning and saw that Shane Williams had been called up to the Lions we had to check the date and make sure it wasn’t April 1. What the heck was Shane Williams doing being called out after a year in semi-retiurement in Japan?
Before getting too emotional about the tear-stained Lions jerseys and their almost spiritual qualities, it’s worth remembering exactly what Williams has been parachuted into the squad to do. He’s there to play one midweek game, the one before the first test, before going home again, or back on the beer, or whatever he was doing. Yes, the Lions is that last great tour on earth, and that should be respected, but we’re now living in an age where injuries are more prevalent than ever, and a bit of pragmatism is essential. He’s been picked because he’s already in Australia and he does not have to overcome the same jetlag as, say, Christian Wade will have to. He’s giving Gatty a dig out. Wazza obviously feels he just needs a space-filler for this game, so as to avoid putting one of his test men on the pitch and risking them getting injured. Given the word on the street is that George North and Tommy Bowe will be available by the middle of next week, he’ll have a few more faces to choose from, so it’s not worth flying, say, Timbo Visser, halfway around the world for one game. It’s a quick-fix.
Anyone who thinks the Lions shirt is being devalued by Shane Williams wearing it probably needs to look down the list of fair-to-middling players that have worn it: Andy Powell, Ugo Monye and Lee Mears spring to mind, and that was just the last tour. Have a look at the touring panel from 2005 and try reminding yourself of the magnificent feats of Gareth Cooper, Iain Balshaw and Ollie Smith. Shane Williams is a two-time Lions tourist and knows what it’s all about. He was also a ridiculously good player, and will make the midweek team better to watch, even if it’s only for one game. And if he’s even 15% as good as he was in his last game in an Ospreys jersey, which was only 12 months ago, when he was the matchwinner against Leinster in the Pro12 final, he’ll be more than up to task of filling in for the Lions in a midweek match.
But there are some counter-arguments. Principally that it devalues the touring party and is a slight on players who have played all year to try and earn a shot at the Lions. Given the one-shot nature of the call-up, would we prefer to have the jinking Welshman out there instead of, say, a jetlagged Tim Visser? Yes … if it’s a one-shot game. With the injuries coming thick and fast, who’s to say he won’t be needed more? What if Wade or Zebo get injured? At present, he’s 1.5 injuries away from a spot on the test bench, and, for that, I’d rather Visser to be frank – glorified training in Japan followed by a jolly around Oz just isn’t good enough preparation.
Andy Nicol was called up in exactly the same circumstances twelve years ago, and he prayed Matt Dawson wouldn’t get injured – he didn’t think he would last ten minutes. And Nicol hadn’t been in Japan for a year.
There is also the tightrope Gatty is walking with regard to Welsh players – if he picks his boys in all the 50-50s, having called up his mate from the bar, it’s not going to go down well in the squad. We’re sure Gatty has a plan to manage all this, but if Williams ends up being needed for the bench (or the field) in a test, a slightly madcap, fun-filled gamble will have backfired spectacularly.