posted on Dec, 31 2004 @ 07:03 AM
Sir Clive Woodward is likely to regain the mantle of British rugby's dominant personality in 2005. Woodward, who masterminded England's stunning 2003
World Cup triumph, returns to the international stage as Lions supremo for their three-Test tour of New Zealand in May, June and July. Having quit as
England boss earlier this year, Woodward has devoted his time and energy exclusively into making detailed preparations for the 11-game trip.
The coaching team is already in place - Eddie O'Sullivan, Andy Robinson, Ian McGeechan and Gareth Jenkins, among others - as part of a 26-strong
management group, the biggest in Lions history. A 44-man playing squad will be announced probably in April, as Woodward targets another major
achievement during a coaching career already studded with success.
In the opposite corner is All Blacks chief Graham Henry, coach of the 2001 Lions and former Wales boss, which suggests an intriguing head-to-head
between two dominant world rugby figures. The tour might well be Woodward's final fling with rugby union, amid speculation that he could embark on a
career in football following the trip Down Under. But there would be no finer way for him to bow out than inspiring a Lions Test series success in a
country where they last achieved it 33 years ago.
A successful mission would complete Woodward's CV - World Cup winner, Lions winner and Six Nations Grand Slam winner - before he rides off into the
sunset. The 2005 RBS 6 Nations Championship though, could prove beyond England's reach for a second successive season. They open their campaign with a
tricky encounter under the Millennium Stadium floodlights against Mike Ruddock's Wales on February 5, while a trip to Dublin later that month also
appears fraught with danger.
Six Nations champions France must travel to Twickenham, together with Scotland and Italy, but England's fate is likely to be decided on the road.
Ireland, fresh from a momentous victory over Tri-Nations champions South Africa, would appear to hold all the aces, with home advantage against both
England and France. They clinched the Triple Crown under coach Eddie O'Sullivan's expert guidance last season, defeating England at Twickenham en
route, and they look on course to better that achievement next time around.
Wales in Cardiff is a potential obstacle for the Irish, but if they retain their current form, even a powerful French side could find it difficult to
finish above them. England might have to content themselves with another third-place finish, but do not rule out a strong run on the rails from Wales.
Edinburgh will host the Heineken Cup final in May, 2005, although the chances of a Scottish team getting there are remote. The smart money is on
another Anglo-French encounter, maybe Wasps versus Toulouse for a second successive European campaign.
On the domestic front, Wasps will look to complete a hat-trick of Zurich Premiership titles, but resurgent Leicester should push them all the way,
with Bath possibly landing a first domestic cup final triumph since 1996. The Celtic League, meanwhile, is seemingly developing into a four-horse
title race. Neath-Swansea Ospreys have set out their stall by establishing a commanding lead, but Newport Gwent Dragons are leading the chasing group,
with traditional Irish challengers Munster and Leinster lurking ominously close behind.
2005 promises to be another memorable rugby year - but victory for the Lions in New Zealand, just like England's World Cup triumph, would make it an