The citing window closed yesterday without so much as a hint of retribution from the disciplinary officer Jean-Etienne Bernard, so it no longer matters who did what to whom during Tuesday's roughhouse involving the Lions and their hosts in Port Elizabeth, the Southern Kings. Unless, of course, you happen to be James Hook, whose chances of playing a part in Saturday's opening Test with the Springboks disappeared, along with his faculties, when he took a heavy blow to the head in the first few minutes of the game.
Hook must be beside himself with disappointment and, to judge by the words of the tourists' assistant coach Rob Howley yesterday, the Lions are equally aghast, both for him and for themselves. "It's definitely a blow to us," the Welshman admitted. "James can play in three positions across the back division and we're bound to miss someone of his quality. He was hit by a highish tackle, and that's being kind. There was a cynical mark on the game, with a lot of off-the-ball incidents that weren't picked up by the referee or either touch judge."
Howley would go no further in condemning the approach taken by the Southern Kings: the Lions hierarchy are on a three-line whip not to bleat about rough play, partly for fear of tit-for-tat citings, which are not entirely unknown on these treks around the southern hemisphere. But there was still a degree of bemusement at the decision of the independent citing officer from France to ignore some of the more obvious assaults perpetrated by the likes of De Wet Barry, Frikkie Welsh and Wylie Human.
Euan Murray, who sprained an ankle shortly before Hook was banjaxed, is also out of contention for the Test, and assuming the Lions have no intention of asking Andrew Sheridan to play a third game in seven days, the tourists will face the Springboks without either of their strongest scrummaging props. This will not worry them unduly if, as seems likely, Ian McGeechan and his fellow coaches are set on beefing up their act at the breakdown by pairing Gethin Jenkins and Phil Vickery in the front row. Even so, this week's brief visit to the Eastern Cape was a costly one.
When the management met yesterday to discuss their options, there was obvious room for debate in four positions: left wing, outside-half and the two flanks. Ugo Monye has done most of the things that could reasonably be expected of him, and his attacking opportunism has been one of the features of the six-match build-up, but with the Lions aware of the need to bolster their kicking, the Ireland full-back Rob Kearney offered an alternative. Likewise, Ronan O'Gara's accurate kicking from No 10 has helped him to close the gap on the pre-tour favourite for the role, Stephen Jones.
There were some very audible whispers yesterday that McGeechan was considering playing both of his open-side flankers, Martyn Williams of Wales and David Wallace of Ireland, from the start and leaving Tom Croft of England, a natural blind-side specialist, on the bench, where he could cover the lock positions into the bargain. This would be a high-risk approach, for Wallace has not played a serious game of rugby at blind-side for many seasons. But the Lions are deeply concerned about the Springboks' extreme physicality at the tackle area, especially now the South Africans have chosen the turnover maestro Heinrich Brussow to replace the injured Schalk Burger. The strategy of using two No 7s has worked before, most notably for Australia in the 2003 World Cup, but if McGeechan tries it and it goes wrong, it will backfire in a big way.
"Brussow's performance against us for the Free State Cheetahs in Bloemfontein was very efficient," Howley admitted. "When we've played without a 'fetcher', we've struggled at the breakdown. But we weren't analysing our opponents too closely at the start of the tour because we felt it more important to put our own game together. We are now fully aware of the threat he poses and, over the next 48 hours, we will be looking very closely at the Springboks."Reuse content