Ian McGeechan has favoured both youth and experience for the Lions’ tour opener against the Royal XV.
The Lions coach was always going to pick a strong team for the first tour game, and the only real surprise is the omission of former Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll.
McGeechan said O’Driscoll’s shoulder niggle wasn’t a factor and that every squad player was available for Saturday’s match in Rustenburg. The fact that O’Driscoll and another Leinster player like Jamie Heaslip did, however, participate in a European Cup final just last week was a reason for their omission.
Irishman Keith Earls comes in at 13 while McGeechan has gone with the Ospreys’ back-three of Lee Byrne, Tommy Bowe and the irrepressible Shane Williams. A Scotsman (Mike Blair), an Irishman (Ronan O’Gara) and a Welshman (Jamie Roberts) will line up in the 9, 10 and 12 channels, and this is why the first encounter will be so interesting.
‘We are aiming to give all the players a run in the first three games and in all six matches before the Tests we will be trying to develop combinations,’ said McGeechan. ‘I think it’s a good mix of youth and experience, but the challenge is to bring the best out of these players as a unit.
‘The unique thing about the Lions is that it allows players who may never have played together a rare opportunity. We know a little about Griquas [who will make up the bulk of the Royal XV] but it’s more important that we concentrate on our own game and put things together from day one.’
McGeechan said it was important that some combinations were retained and that is why he has gone with the Ospreys wings and fullback as his back-three.
‘There’s already an understanding there which is very important. We want to try out new things and I’m excited to see how our young centres do, but it’s good to have that experience available as well.’
The Royal XV will go into this fixture as underdogs but should give the Lions a good go in terms of physicality. This is why the Lions’ management have opted for such a strong pack right from the outset. It should give them an opportunity to develop as a combination and also allow the ‘A’ team to adjust to the rigours of altitude.
‘We know we have to get things right up front and establish the right kind of platform for our backs. We always knew physicality was going to be hugely important in this series,’ McGeechan said.
The Lions’ head coach explained his back-row choice, saying Joe Worsely complemented the dynamic Martyn Williams and the multi-talented Andy Powelll.
‘Joe has had one of his best international seasons. He’s a strong defender and I think that overall his strengths balance with his other two partners.
‘It’s the kind of relationship we’d like to see in all of our combinations. Everybody sees their role in relation to others around them.’
After months of hype the first tour match is just two days away. McGeechan admitted to being a touch nervous.
‘I don’t know what will come out of the game this Saturday, but I realise how important this period is in terms of the tour. It’s exciting because this is when a team starts to establish itself.
‘There’s been a lot of planning but the tour has only come alive in the last two weeks. I’d say we’re very ready to play this Saturday. We may be a bit rough around the edges, but we’re ready.’
Lions – 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Mike Blair, 8 Andy Powell, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Joe Worsely, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Subs: 16 Lee Mears, 17 Phil Vickery, 18 Alun-Wyn Jones, 19 Stephen Ferris, 20 Mike Phillips, 21 Stephen Jones, 22 Riki Flutey.
By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg