Paul O'Connell, master of all he surveys on this Lions tour of South Africa despite appearing in the duff performance in Rustenburg last Saturday rather than the stellar one at Ellis Park two nights ago, must know full well that come the first Test against the Springboks on 20 June, he will occupy half the available space in the boilerhouse of the scrum. The talking point yesterday was the identity of his partner, and it could prove one of the most impenetrable selection puzzles of the series.
Alun-Wyn Jones, the law student from Swansea, played a quite brilliant hand in the 74-point dismantling of the Golden Lions, thereby reinforcing the popular notion that of the five locks in the party, he and the captain are the best equipped to mix it with Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, pride of the Springbok nation and the outstanding second-row partnership in world rugby.
But the way O'Connell told it here, the two men are competing for a single place – presumably because the coaches consider their middle-jumping, ball-carrying gifts to be too similar. "I don't see that I'm guaranteed a place in the Test side," the captain said, not terribly convincingly. "Alun-Wyn Jones played fabulously well, getting around the field, carrying a lot of ball, making his tackles as he always does." By putting it the way he did, O'Connell indicated that one of Nathan Hines, Simon Shaw or Donncha O'Callaghan would make the cut for the Test in Durban.
The balance of the second row will be crucial to the Lions' chances of withstanding the Bokke onslaught. The scrum, the line-out operation, the physical contest at the breakdown, the entire psychological balance of the Tests... so much will depend on the outcome of this game within a game, and the indications are that the head coach, Ian McGeechan, and his inner circle have decided to play a heavy-duty, tractor-style forward alongside their captain – preferably one comfortable with the demands of jumping at the front of the line.
If this turns out to be the case, Hines is ahead of the field at present. An Australian from Wagga Wagga who plays his club rugby in the Catalan corner of southern France, the naturalised Scot does not lack for aggression and is, according to the coaching staff, in the shape of his life. O'Callaghan, who has the advantage of playing alongside O'Connell for Ireland, is expected to be given his chance against the Free State Cheetahs in Bloemfontein tomorrow, but he will have to go some to match Hines' effort in midweek.
Where this leaves Jones may soon become all too clear, and if he is indeed cast as the tour's principal unfortunate, O'Connell will have to play an inspiring hand in keeping up his spirits. "It's an important element of any tour that those guys not picked for the Tests stay on tour – that they keep raising the bar," he acknowledged. "Fortunately, we have a management team who are very experienced in keeping people happy, keeping them onside. You can't underestimate the value of that experience."
Thanks to the Golden Lions' spellbindingly poor performance in front of their own supporters, the tourists left town for Bloemfontein in something resembling one piece. "All 22 players who took part in the game are banged up: it was a fast game, a bruising game and there are some sore bodies," Graham Rowntree, the scrummaging technician, reported. "But we have no immediate drastic concerns ahead of the Free State match. We've savoured the performance at Ellis Park – it was a famous victory – but we have our feet planted firmly on the ground."
Might complacency be an issue in the heart of the Free State tomorrow? "Not a chance," the former England prop responded. "There will be new players in the team, guys starting for the first time on this tour, and they know that in this environment, it's a matter of taking opportunities. You don't want to be at the back of the queue on a Lions trip, and that thought will drive people on. There will be no complacency."
There will be no rest for Andrew Sheridan, either, if Rowntree has his way. The loose-head prop played as well as most in Rustenburg, but finished the match with blisters on both feet – blisters so big that James Robson, the popular Scot in charge of the Lions' medical team, confessed that he had never seen anything quite like them. Sheridan has been hobbling round ever since, covered in plasters and looking about as cheerful as a vegetarian in a steak house. "He'll be fine," Rowntree insisted. "He won't miss a game because of blisters. I won't let it happen. I'll send him home if he does."
Leigh Halfpenny, who has only just arrived after spending eight bitterly frustrating days in Cardiff trying to get his thigh injury sorted out, completed his first training session yesterday and immediately found that his goal-kicking range, already 50-metres plus, had grown to 60 metres in the thin air of the highveld. The Wales wing is available for selection for the Free State game.
"When they told me I'd have to stay behind, I was devastated," he admitted. "I thought my tour had been taken away from me. Now, I'm just grateful to be here. When I get my chance, I'll give it my all."
Robinson finds a new home in auld enemy's lair
Andy Robinson could hardly have looked more at ease as he sat in the head coach's seat at Murrayfield yesterday. It was different in February 2006 when he was last at the ground in the capacity of an international head coach.
The 18-12 defeat he watched his players suffer that day was to be the beginning of the end for Robinson as England's head honcho. Eight months and just one win later, his time was up at Twickenham.
Robinson never got to lead England to the 2007 World Cup but his mission now, having signed a three-year contract as the replacement for Frank Hadden, is to take Scotland to the 2011 competition in New Zealand – where they just happen to have a Pool B contest against Martin Johnson's men.
"I'll be proud and honoured to be leading the Scotland team," he said. "I believe I'm a better coach, a better leader and a better manager than I was in 2006."
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