Lions face the biggest scrap so far

McGeechan opts for power as Cheetahs pose physical and psychological threat
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The Independent Online

It is difficult to recall a bigger Lions pack that the one selected for this afternoon's "muggers' alley" match with the Free State Cheetahs here in the very heartland of Afrikanerdom: they weigh in at a little over 18st a man and are extremely tall, with the Scottish prop Euan Murray the shortest of the forwards, a mere pipsqueak at 6ft 1ins.

On the other hand, there is unlikely to have been a smaller pair of wings than Leigh Halfpenny and Shane Williams, or, in the modern age, a lighter set of threequarters. These tourists are certainly covering all the bases.

The Lions know they are in for a scrap today: the Cheetahs may not have been up to much in this year's Super 14 competition, but the majority of South Africans expect them to stoke the fires sufficiently to land some meaningful shots, psychologically as well as physically. Ian McGeechan, true to his word as ever, has included in the starting XV all but one of those yet to begin a match: Halfpenny, Luke Fitzgerald and Harry Ellis in the backs; Murray, Ross Ford, Donncha O'Callaghan, Stephen Ferris and Andy Powell up front. The exception is Gordon D'Arcy, called up in midweek because of fitness concerns over a number of midfield players, most notably Riki Flutey. "I'd flown to America for a holiday, but no sooner had I landed than I received a text telling me I was wanted, so I turned round and flew over here," he said after being named on the bench.

D'Arcy's performance on this tour will be fascinating to behold. Four years ago in New Zealand, he was in the frame for a debut Lions Test appearance against the All Blacks in Auckland but failed to make it because, according to Sir Clive Woodward, he was suffering from "general fatigue". If it seemed an odd diagnosis at the time, D'Arcy found it odder than most. Not to say deeply upsetting.

Being a specialist inside centre, D'Arcy could prove very useful indeed. Flutey is still struggling with his knee, while Jamie Roberts is the talk of the town and therefore in need of some protection before the Test series begins in a fortnight. Fitzgerald, today's No 12? He much prefers the wing and outside centre positions. James Hook, another possibility? His skills are those of a born outside-half, the role he plays this afternoon. Had Gavin Henson not done himself a mischief in a cup semi-final in March, life would have been a whole lot easier.

For some high-profile players, not least the twinkle-toed Williams and the elephant-footed Andrew Sheridan, this is a big moment. Poor games from either could leave them struggling for Test selection – the result of impressive performances by Ugo Monye and Gethin Jenkins in Johannesburg.

McGeechan, the head coach, is continuing to insist that some major decisions will be left until late, but very few players want to see their names on the team-sheet for the next midweek match, against the Kwazulu-Natal Sharks in Durban on Wednesday. Not with a Test-team run-out against Western Province in seven days' time.

Lions team: To face Cheetahs

*L Byrne (Wales); L Halfpenny (Wales), K Earls (Ireland), L Fitzgerald (Ireland), S Williams (Wales); J Hook (Wales), H Ellis (England); A Sheridan (England), R Ford (Scotland), E Murray (Scotland), D O'Callaghan (Ireland), P O'Connell (Ireland, capt), S Ferris (Ireland), J Worsley (England) A Powell (Wales).

Replacements: M Rees (Wales), A Jones (Wales), S Shaw (England), N Hines (Scotland), M Blair (Scotland), R O'Gara (Ireland), G D'Arcy (Ireland).

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