As recently as a week ago, the Lions considered this evening's game with Kwazulu-Natal Sharks at King's Park – quite the most electrifying stadium in world rugby, even when half full – a good one to miss. In fact, it was the one to miss. Then, the head coach Ian McGeechan indicated that Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts, the two outstanding centres on tour, would play together here on the shores of the Indian Ocean, thereby confirming that whatever happens in selection for the Western Province match this weekend, it will not be a dry run for the Test team.
McGeechan was talking about gambling on this high-risk approach before the Lions convened, but no one really believed him. Now, they do. While a number of hot favourites for places against the Springboks, including the wing Tommy Bowe and the outside-half Stephen Jones, have been held back for the trip to Cape Town, others – the full-back Lee Byrne and the centres, not to mention the captain, Paul O'Connell – are involved tonight. Half the side for the first Test a week on Saturday is probably settled, but the next 160 minutes of sea-level rugby remain hugely significant.
Injuries may yet force McGeechan's hand, and they are beginning to kick in. Leigh Halfpenny, the goal-kicking wing from Wales, broke down in training after aggravating his dodgy thigh muscle – a repeat of the injury that forced him to miss the first eight days of the trip. Halfpenny has been forced to withdraw from the replacements' bench for tonight's game, the vacancy being filled by the Wales outside-half James Hook, whose confident performance last weekend, characterised by a faultess effort with the boot, thrust him into contention for the bigger matches ahead.
At the same time, there are big-name players in the very peak of physical condition – the wing Shane Williams, the lock Alun-Wyn Jones, the flankers Tom Croft and David Wallace – whose Test chances hang on tonight's contest with a Sharks side deprived of nine current Springboks, but still armed with a formidable pack of Super 14 regulars and two players outside the scrum, the half-back Rory Kockott and the full-back Stefan Terblanche, who many South Africans felt should have been included in the squad for the Test series.
The O'Driscoll-Roberts axis aside, no area of the elite team is nailed down. As O'Connell said yesterday: "We're halfway through our build up, and the more the squad as a whole believes places are still up for grabs, the happier they will be and the more likely it is that we'll get the right results on the field. Ian has been on Lions tours as a player and as a coach, and he's seen the effect a split squad can have. There are no mixed messages from this management, which I see as a wise one."
Wise enough, certainly, to understand the urgency with which four crucial areas must be add ressed.
McGeechan's late calls The Durban dilemmas, by Chris Hewett
1. The wings: Shane or no Shane?
The magical Williams was garlanded with the World Player of the Year title only a few months ago, but there have been precious few signs of his box-office brilliance here. The interception pass he threw to the Free State centre Corne Uys on Saturday – a mistake that might easily have cost the Lions the game – left him seriously dejected, and he has taken a good deal of talking round. This evening, he shifts from left wing to right, with Luke Fitzgerald, another disappointing contributor in Bloemfontein, switching to the No 11 position from inside centre. While there seems little likelihood of Williams finding a way past Tommy Bowe, who played so well in Johannesburg a week ago, a vintage performance might just make the coaches think twice before rejecting him completely and asking Ugo Monye – or, just conceivably, Rob Kearney – to look after the dangerous Bryan Habana on Saturday week.
2. Scrum-half: Can Phillips nail it?
Mike Phillips is built like a ninth forward, and plays like one. He is more substantial in the weights and measures department than his rivals, the England half-back Harry Ellis and the Scotland captain Mike Blair, and has the added advantage of being in prime form, his performance against the Golden Lions in Johannesburg being far more persuasive than Blair's in Rustenburg or Ellis' in Bloemfontein. But what happens if he has a rough one tonight? It is far from an impossibility, given the quality of the home back row. The Lions coaches are praying Phillips is given some quick possession, and that his link-up with Ronan O'Gara – a man he crossed verbal swords with to such an extent before the Six Nations match between Wales and Ireland in March that he could not repeat the sentiments exchanged yesterday for fear that his mum might get to read them – works smoothly.
3. The locks: Who can beat the boilerhouse duo?
Somewhere along the line, the Lions must find themselves a second-row combination capable of mixing it with the best boilerhouse pairing in the game: Bakkies Botha, the dark heart of the Springbok pack, and Victor Matfield, whose line-out jumping is a thing of light and air. Nathan Hines, the naturalised Scot from Wagga Wagga, has the aggression and is in the best physical condition of his career, but if Alun-Wyn Jones, a regular middle-line operator, can cut it at the front tonight while playing alongside Captain O'Connell, all sorts of possibilities open up. Jones is the form lock in the party, although no one questions O'Connell's readiness to take responsibility when things are going awry, as they did in matches one and three. The nightmare scenario will be as follows: Jones plays superbly against the Sharks, but the line-out goes belly-up. In that event, McGeechan will have a desperate decision to make.
4. The back row: Will the big men grab their chance?
Tonight's loose combination of Croft, Wallace and Jamie Heaslip has a Test feel, especially after the back-row difficulties in Bloemfontein. But if Wallace, playing the crucial open-side role, has problems at the breakdown against a useful Sharks unit, attention will switch to the ever-creative Martyn Williams, whose footballing gifts are held in such high esteem. Williams is suffering from shoulder problems, but should be fit for the Western Province game this weekend. The Lions could use a big performance from Heaslip, the Irish No 8. It is not an especially strong position for the tourists – there is no modern-day Scott Quinnell here, and it remains to be seen whether anyone can match Tim Rodber's resourceful performances during the victory over the Boks in 1997. As for Croft, his line-out work is a good as anyone's. A sure sign of a big heart this evening will leave him close to a Test place.Reuse content