The British & Irish Lions’ combinations that front the Springboks on 20 June should provide a stern test.
Head coach Ian McGeechan said the 74-10 thrashing of the Golden Lions should be seen in perspective and the same is true of their narrow escape in Bloemfontein. The tourists fielded a third-choice halfback combination, an unbalanced back row and a young midfield. These combinations will not start the Tests, but after three tour matches McGeechan will be happy that everything has gone according to plan.
Every player in the 38-man squad has had a run and the Lions have won three from three. The tour will get tougher when they face the Sharks and Western Province next week, but it should also get interesting.
No matter what team they’ve started, the Lions’ scrum has been dominant. Expect to see Andrew Sheridan packing down against Bok skipper John Smit in the first Test. For all the talk of Smitty’s progress at tighthead in the Super 14, he will head into the King’s Park clash as the underdog. The same is true for Beast Mtawarira, who will face Adam Jones or Euan Murray. The Scotland No 3 monstered All Blacks loosehead Jamie Mackintosh before taming the Beast at Murrayfield last year, and with Matthew Rees beside him, the Lions’ front row is a formidable one.
Paul O’Connell will lead the side from the second row while Welshman Alun-Wyn Jones would be a boon to their lineout. A back row that includes Andy Powell and Tom Croft will offer them options at this set-piece which is crucial considering the Springboks often start five jumpers.
Powell and Croft’s powerful ball-carrying will have been noted, while Martyn Williams is the only player who will come close to troubling the Boks at the breakdown. Joe Worsley was shown up against the Cheetahs on Saturday, but should still make the Test cut albeit from the bench.
These selections offer McGeechan a balanced back row, but the pack is still lacking synergy and accuracy at the tackle point. Unless they rectify these shortcomings in the next fortnight, they’ll be comprehensively murdered by the Boks.
At 9 and 10, Geech need look no further than the Wales pairing of Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones. Phillips will be one of the key players for the tourists, his 103kg bulk set to test the Boks round the fringes and his big boot crucial in the strive for territory. It’s a halfback combination that offers the Lions the most options, as Jones has shown he can vary his play between the expansive and the conservative according to the situation. His defence is also better than Ronan O’Gara’s and this could eventually see him cracking the nod. When you have the robust South Africans running up your first channel, you need a decent tackler.
Gordon D’Arcy arrived on Thursday and Riki Flutey is battling with a knee injury, but a lot could happen in the next two weeks. At present, Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll appear to be in the midfield groove and looked impressive on both attack and defence in Johannesburg. The pair’s offloading in the tackle has been a big feature and is something the Boks will need to keep and eye on, but so far the duo have been untested on defence.
Roberts hasn’t played too much at 12 and the Bok midfield (Jean de Villiers and Adi Jacobs or Jaque Fourie) are in a different league to what he’s experienced against the Royal XV and the Golden Lions. It looks to be the Lions’ form combination, but it’s a combination that still has much to prove against decent opposition. Perhaps the fixture against the Sharks or WP will offer further insight.
The kicking games of Phillips and Jones would be well complemented by Lee Byrne’s massive boot at the back, and the Wales’ No 15 showcased his ability to counter-attack in the first tour match. Usually solid under the high ball (apart from the last minute spill on Saturday night), he will be a key player in the Lions’ drive to outboot the Boks tactically.
Byrne’s back-three accomplices should in theory require similar attributes, but McGeechan may favour the smart-stepping Shane Williams on the wing. The tiny Wales’ No 11 has struggled to make an impression on this tour and has no kicking game to speak of. His defence of late has also been sub-standard and he may be targeted if he makes the Test team.
McGeechan may include a bigger winger like Tommy Bowe or Ugo Monye to balance the back-three, but apart from Byrne, it’s a department where the positions are still up for grabs.
From what we’ve seen, the world champions have nothing to worry about and a series win is still expected. But to underestimate the potential of these combinations would be costly.
Form British & Irish Lions squad after three tour games:
15 Lee Byrne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Andy Powell, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Paul O’Connell (c) ,3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Subs: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Euan Murray, 18 Simon Shaw, 19 Joe Worsley, 20 Harry Ellis, 21 Ronan O’Gara, 22 Gordon D’Arcy.
By Jon Cardinelli