By Donal Lenihan
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Ah yes, in addition you might also nominate your best player and best coach from the same period in addition to a fair play award to a player that in your estimation deserves that distinction for whatever reason you deem appropriate.
I have selected a lot of teams in my time from club sides in UCC and Cork Constitution to several Munster and Irish combinations, in addition to the Barbarians and Lions tour squads to South Africa in 1997 and Australia in 2001. Never before was I faced with such an array of talent, making the task both challenging and rewarding. The biggest plus with a combination like this is they don't have to play against anyone and consequently no one disappoints or fails to match pre-conceived notions.
The fact that I was reunited with several colleagues from the past including former team-mates, coaches and international foes made the exercise even more enjoyable.
Keeping a discrete and non-invasive watching brief over our deliberations was my former Irish international colleague and chief executive of ERC, Derek McGrath, along with the chairman of the ERC board, former French international Jean-Pierre Lux.
Where do you start with an exercise of this magnitude? ERC marketing manager Alan Fitzgerald was quite clever, actually, in getting each of the nine panellists to submit in advance what we deemed our three best teams, ranked accordingly. When those lists were correlated and presented to the meeting, it transpired that 122 different players had 27 sides nominated - 63 forwards and 59 backs.
While quite a few players featured with encouraging regularity across the sides compiled by each panellist, a further 20 players appeared just once.
When the first nomination of the day was suggested for the fair play award and the player in question had received a total of seven yellow and one red card, in addition to one or two other unsavoury incidents over the course of his career, I suspected that we were going to have a long day. Suffice to say he didn't make it.
Seated to my right was former Australian great Michael Lynagh, an outstanding out half against whom I had played on at least six occasions that I can recall and was responsible for inflicting the most painful defeat of my international career. He was the architect of Australia's devastating last minute try by David Campese back in 1991 to deny Ireland a first ever World Cup semi-final slot. Having taken over the captaincy after Nick Farr Jones had left the field injured, he was the one who gathered his troops behind the posts and told them what they needed to do after Gordon Hamilton had scored that try. I have never felt so sick after a game. Interestingly, the genial Queenslander confided in me that this was the first time he ever sat in a selection meeting and consequently was not too sure what to expect.
On my left shoulder sat Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times who was appointed chairman of the panel with the additional clout of a casting vote which I am glad to say was never called for. One might have expected Ian McGeechan to fill that role with slightly more relevant experience on that front and with Jones' reputation for presiding over some bizarre notional selections in the Times over the years - last season he nominated a Lions test side without Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell - I began to wonder which direction our discussions would take. Suffice to say that while my learned friend did produce a few nominations from left field, I found him affable, well prepared and good company.
Sky Sports, who do such a great job in covering both European competitions, were well represented by Lynagh, Welsh wizard Ieuan Evans and the gregarious Stuart Barnes. It was a cause of some quiet banter that 'Ieuan the Lion' as he is affectionately known in Llanelli, despite winning a Heineken Cup winners medal with Bath in 1998, failed to receive a nomination among the 18 wingers put forward. That tells you something about the quality under discussion for the right and left wing slots alone.
FIRST THERE was the debate before the debate: choosing a selection criteria to separate outstanding candidates vying for the same slot. Take the second row, for instance, where you had a trio of iconic figures in winning captains Martin Johnson, Fabien Pelous and Paul O'Connell. Add in Lions and England World Cup winners Simon Shaw and Ben Kay both with two Heineken Cup winners medals in their pocket.
If you were picking a combination to play against the All Blacks in the morning you would look for balance in terms of a front and middle lineout operator, a pairing that would be compatible in terms of scrummaging, ball carrying and clearing bodies at ruck time. That might not be the same combination that made the biggest contributions to their respective teams and the competition as a whole over the course of their careers. That gives you an idea of the type of discussion that took place.
The composition of the back row also triggered much debate, as one would expect, given the outstanding players that populated that vital sector over a 15-year period.
How do you define the performance of someone like Rocky Elsom, who only graced the Heineken Cup for one season but made such an impact that he collected several man of the match awards and was so influential that Brian O'Driscoll admitted Leinster wouldn't have won the tournament last season without him?
Compare him then to stalwarts like Munster's Alan Quinlan, Jean Bouilhou of Toulouse, Gregory Kacala who was magnificent when Brive won the trophy back in 1997 and Leicester's Martin Corry to name but a few others.
Look at the influential roles played by the number eight nominations for their clubs in Anthony Foley and Lawrence Dallaglio, not to mention the sustained excellence over a long period from Jamie Heaslip, Scott Quinnell and Toulouse marvel Christian Labit and you wonder how we ever got out of that meeting room in London.
There is also an opportunity for you to air your views and register your choice by going online on www.ercrugby.com/15.
While pausing for a coffee in Heathrow airport on my journey back to Cork, I took the opportunity to compare how my original first choice team compared with the final selections of the panel. I was pleasantly surprised to note that 12 of my XV had made the official side, even if one occupied a different position in the back three. How did that compare with the rest of the brains trust? Very well actually. Maybe it wasn't that difficult after all!
Have fun picking your team.
This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Read more: http://www.examiner.ie/sport/columnists/donal-lenihan/selecting-the-best-and-debating-the-rest-117750.html#ixzz0ljmHvi54
ERC 15 (1995 - 2010)
A microsite dedicated to celebrating the 1st 15 years of European Club Rugby