McGeechan leaves Boks playing guessing game

Lions coach refuses to give Test hints as he names side to face Sharks tomorrow
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The Independent Online

Clever, very clever. Ian McGeechan's one-man campaign to disorientate and disconcert the Springboks ahead of the three-Test series beginning in this city on 20 June continued apace yesterday when he pieced together another mix-and-match side for tomorrow evening's meeting with the Kwazulu-Natal Sharks. With Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts back in tandem, a week after their astonishing display in Johannesburg, they are surely confirmed as the first-choice pairing, but that was the extent of the revelation. Anyone trying to second-guess the head coach's long-term thoughts from the rest of this selection is on a very difficult road indeed.

It is now certain that the Test side will not play together as a 15-man unit until the first Test itself. Paul O'Connell's presence in the second row tomorrow, so soon after playing 80 minutes in the Free State at the weekend, means the captain will be withheld from the game against Western Province in Cape Town this coming Saturday, and it is highly likely that a number of other front-runners, including the full-back Lee Byrne, will be rested there. If the Springboks are to get an inside track on the shape of the elite team in advance of the formal announcement, they will need a helping hand from George Smiley.

"This is not the Six Nations, it's a Lions tour," the coach said yesterday. "I don't know what will happen on future tours, but as a group of coaches we agreed that we have to be fair to the players – to be inter-related in everything we do and to give people enough opportunity to impress. If you asked me to name my Test team now, I'd have to do it on the back of one performance, maybe one and a half performances, from some of the players. That wouldn't be fair. It's a challenge, but we have to do it this way. The only alternative would be to separate the squad and tell half of them now that they won't be involved against the Boks. I'm not prepared to do that."

Much attention will be focused on O'Connell's partnership with Alun Wyn Jones, the form lock on the tour. Last week, the captain suggested that he and the Welshman were competing for a single place in the boilerhouse, but if the pair of them click tomorrow, the chances of the two middle-jumping specialists joining forces against Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield, the world's best second-row partnership, will be greatly enhanced. Indeed, it could be the making of the Lions pack.

Jones, a law student at Swansea University, has, for obvious reasons, been handed the role of tour "judge", and he runs the fines and punishment regime with a ruthlessness once associated with the Bloody Assizes. "It is a never-ending cyle of pain," he remarked, rather proudly. But away from the team-room high jinks, the 23-year-old has established himself as a senior player, hence his 20-minute stint as caretaker captain after the early departures of O'Driscoll and Phil Vickery from the contest with the Golden Lions six days ago.

"It wasn't too testing: when you're 60 points up, all you have to do is sit on the rudder and let everyone else get on with it," he said. "But it was an honour, all the same. Until now, I hadn't put this down as one of my better seasons. I wasn't up to scratch for Ospreys at the start of it, the autumn internationals were nothing special and I was a bit flat in the Six Nations. But this is special, the kind of experience where you sit back and smell the roses. Not that you can take things easy. Paul is our captain and will play in the Tests. That leaves four locks competing for one remaining starting place, and three locks competing for a seat on the bench. That's a lot of competition, and it's very intense."

Neil Jenkins, who landed the goals that mattered from his makeshift position of full-back the last time the Lions were here a dozen years ago, will join the back-room staff on Thursday as kicking coach, the role he performs with Wales.

British & Irish Lions v Sharks

*Lions XV to play Sharks in Durban tomorrow: L Byrne (Wales); S Williams (Wales), B O'Driscoll (Ireland), J Roberts (Wales), L Fitzgerald (Ireland); R O'Gara (Wales), M Phillips (Wales); G Jenkins (Wales), L Mears (England), A Jones (Wales), A Wyn-Jones (Wales), P O'Connell (Ireland), T Croft (England), D Wallace (Ireland), J Heaslip (Ireland)

Replacements: M Rees (Wales), P Vickery (England), S Shaw (England), J Worsley (England), M Blair (Scotland), R Flutey (England), L Halfpenny (Wales).