Lions prepare to unleash O'Driscoll

Coaches bank on 'pivotal' centre staying fit to erase memory of infamous tackle
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The Independent Online

The last time Brian O'Driscoll wore a Lions shirt, a couple of friendly All Blacks obliterated the Irishman's hopes and dreams, along with his left shoulder, by tipping him over and smashing him into the floor on a wild winter's night in Christchurch, New Zealand. O'Driscoll is still not absolutely fit, as anyone watching him win the recent Heineken Cup final for Leinster with one good arm will testify, yet there was a feeling of renewed confidence about the tour management yesterday as they named him as captain for tomorrow evening's awkward game with another set of Lions, of the Golden variety, at Ellis Park.

Not that the coaching team will feel completely comfortable with life until the world's best outside-centre completes the game and returns to his hotel room safe and sound. "Brian is pivotal to us," admitted the forwards strategist Warren Gatland, who, in his other job as head coach of Wales, found himself counting the cost of O'Driscoll's brilliance on Grand Slam day in Cardiff a few weeks ago. "He's had a great season. He's leaner than he was a year ago, he's experienced, he's on top of his game: he's very, very important to us. Which is why he may play only a couple of matches before the first Test. We have to look after him because we don't have a great deal of depth in midfield."

O'Driscoll has long since embraced the "forgive and forget" option in respect of Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu, the two men implicated in the most controversial – not to say nastiest – moment of the 2005 series. "This is not about trying to put the wrongs of that incident right," the Dubliner said. "Once I started playing again, I put everything behind me. This is about now and the excitement I feel every time I pull on the Lions gear to go training, knowing that I have to take my A-game to each session if I'm not to be found out."

Four players – O'Driscoll's fellow Leinsterman, the full-back Rob Kearney; the Australian-born Scotland lock Nathan Hines; and two Englishmen, the wing Ugo Monye and the flanker Tom Croft – will make their Lions debuts in a side showing 13 changes, one of them positional, from the team that started last weekend's opening match in Rustenburg. The men not granted so much as a moment's rest are the wing Tommy Bowe, the centre Jamie Roberts and the back-row forward David Wallace, who shifts from No 8 to the open-side flank. Bowe and Roberts must play again because neither Luke Fitzgerald nor Riki Flutey were fit for selection.

Two games of South African-style intensity in so short a space of time is a tall order, particularly for a forward like Wallace, but Ian McGeechan, the head coach, had no hesitation in asking the Munster player to front up. "When you are a Lion, you're asked to do things you'd never be asked in any other environment, and the players who grow quickest on a tour like this are the ones who just do it," he said. "Besides, I'm not too worried about someone playing on a Saturday and again on a Wednesday. Wednesday-Saturday is a much more difficult call."

There will be keen interest in the Roberts-O'Driscoll axis, just as there will in the performance of Stephen Jones and Mike Phillips at half-back and the loose combination of Croft, Wallace and Jamie Heaslip. All seven will fancy their chances of a Test place, as will at least two Welshmen in the tight five, the prop Gethin Jenkins and the lock Alun-Wyn Jones.

Tomorrow's opponents will be far stronger than the Royal XV who led the Lions until injury time at the weekend. Two experienced Springboks, the outside-half Andre Pretorius and the prop Lawrence Sephaka, will start in a side boasting a dozen members of this season's Super 14 squad.

British and Irish Lions team to play the Golden Lions in Johannesburg tomorrow: R Kearney (Leinster and Ireland); T Bowe (Ospreys and Ireland), B O'Driscoll (Leinster and Ireland, captain), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues and Wales), U Monye (Harlequins and England); S Jones (Scarlets and Wales), M Phillips (Ospreys and Wales); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues and Wales), L Mears (Bath and England), P Vickery (Wasps and England), N Hines (Perpignan and Scotland), A-W Jones (Ospreys and Wales), T Croft (Leicester and England), D Wallace (Munster and Ireland), J Heaslip (Leinster and Ireland). Replacements: R Ford (Edinburgh and Scotland), E Murray (Northampton and Scotland), S Ferris (Ulster and Ireland), A Powell (Cardiff Blues and Wales), H Ellis (Leicester and England), J Hook (Ospreys and Wales), S Williams (Ospreys and Wales).