Lions squad 'what we expected', says de Villiers

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The Independent Online

South Africa coach Peter de Villiers can't wait to pick apart a British and Irish Lions squad he said he largely expected.

De Villiers said the Springboks will be out to atone for the 2-1 loss to the Lions when they last clashed in 1997.

"It is a good squad, which is what we expected, based on the players who were on form in the Six Nations and understanding the type of players that Ian McGeechan was looking for," De Villiers said.

"Now that we know the makeup of the Lions squad we will be able to advance our preparations in terms of our analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, how we expect them to play and how we must prepare for the three tests.

"A Lions tour is always a momentous occasion. Our guys know the magnitude of the task that lies ahead and they know the expectation that there is, especially in view of the disappointments of 1997."

De Villiers said he was surprised only by the choice of lock Paul O'Connell as Lions captain ahead of countryman Brian O'Driscoll, who led Ireland to its first Six Nations Grand Slam in 61 years and the Lions on their last tour to New Zealand four years ago.

But it was typical of McGeechan, in charge of his fourth Lions party, in choosing a forward who was not a national captain. He chose Martin Johnson to lead the '97 squad. O'Connell was captain of European club champion Munster, and led Ireland in O'Driscoll's odd absences.

"He drives a forward pack with his character and it was important to have that focus in the forwards," McGeechan said. "We need that impetus up front and Paul is a very special character."

O'Connell said: "It's a fabulous honour. The tour to South Africa represents a huge challenge for the touring party as we will be playing against the world champions.

"However, I'm confident we have the talent and attitude to represent the famous shirt to the best of our ability and to be successful."

He's among a record 14 Irishmen selected; Wales had 13, England 8 - its lowest total since 1977 - and Scotland 2.

Four players will be making their third Lions tour - O'Driscoll, Ireland first five-eighths Ronan O'Gara, England lock Simon Shaw and Wales flanker Martyn Williams. Shaw was the only survivor from 1997.

Irish and Munster duo, flanker Alan Quinlan and outside back Keith Earls, offered the most unexpected selections.

"Keith came onto the radar at the start of the season. He gives an option at fullback and outside center," McGeechan said. "Alan Quinlan is someone who will have quite a big impact on the character of the squad as it evolves."

New Zealand-born midfielder Riki Flutey, who made his England debut only last November, will enjoy the uncommon honour of having played for against the Lions, as he was a replacement for Wellington during the 2005 tour.

Among those missing out included the injured Jonny Wilkinson and Gavin Henson, and national captains Ryan Jones of Wales, Steve Borthwick of England, and Mike Blair of Scotland.

The 10-match tour starts against a Highveld XV in Rustenburg on May 30. The Lions will have six games against provincial sides before taking on South Africa in the first test at Durban on June 20 followed by the Emerging Springboks. The second test is at Pretoria on June 27 and the third at Johannesburg on July 4.

This story was sourced from The New Zealand Herald.