The British and Irish Lions know they will face a physical examination of the most severe intensity when they meet the Springboks on the shores of the Indian Ocean tomorrow, but they also believe they can set the terms of the engagement. Ian McGeechan, the head coach, has placed his faith in the most mobile forward pack available to him in the hope of forcing the under-prepared South Africans into areas of the field they would rather not visit. If it works, his reputation as one of the game's great strategists will be forged anew.
Gethin Jenkins rather than Andrew Sheridan, Phil Vickery rather than Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones rather than Simon Shaw, Tom Croft rather than Joe Worsley – in each case, the Lions have gone for the faster man, irrespective of feet and inches, pounds and ounces. There are echoes of the triumphant 1997 tour of this country, when Tom Smith and Paul Wallace, the two "pocket props", made such an impact on the Test series. McGeechan was also in charge then, as it happens.
Renowned for throwing the odd selectorial curve ball ahead of the big occasion, McGeechan's surprise yesterday was the absence of a surprise. All the hot favourites duly appeared on the team sheet, and in the few positions of serious debate, the decisions went to the marginal front-runners. Hence the choice of David Wallace at open-side flanker ahead of Martyn Williams.
Had the deeply unfortunate Williams made it, Wales would have had a seventh player in a British Isles starting line-up for the first time since the golden era of the 1970s. Not that there will be too much loss of sleep on the far side of the Severn. The Welsh still have the biggest contingent, and they will take a good deal of satisfaction from the fact that England's four-man representation is the lowest since the first meeting with Australia in 1989.
"We deliberated for more than two hours," McGeechan revealed. "We wanted to be fair to the players, because a lot of them had put up their hands for selection over the first six matches. The decision at open-side flanker was particularly close: we have two very clever players with us. There was some talk out there of us playing both Wallace and Williams in the same back row, but when you reach a Test match in the knowledge that the contest will be at a different level to anything previously experienced, it's important to play people in their No 1 positions."
McGeechan was adamant that the Springboks' decision to call up Heinrich Brussow, the ball-winning Free State Cheetahs flanker who caused the Lions such unmitigated grief in Bloemfontein in the third match of the tour, had not affected his thinking on the delicate choice between Wallace and Williams. "If anything, it's been the other way round," said the coach, a trifle mischievously.
For all his bluster on the subject of who has been doing what to whom at the breakdown, McGeechan sees it as a serious problem area, and he will raise his concerns with the referee, Bryce Lawrence, of New Zealand, when he meets him for the usual eve-of-match discussion. "The referee's interpretation of what is happening at the tackle area will be critical," McGeechan admitted. The coach will also give the scrum a mention during the course of the conversation. Lawrence is not considered a connoisseur of the set piece; like many of his countrymen, he is less interested in the fine art of scrummaging than in getting the thing over and done with as quickly as possible. This is alarming. Even though the Lions have not picked their strongest scrummagers, they would much prefer a proper contest to a rugby league-style apology for one.
For two-thirds of the Lions starting line-up, tomorrow's match amounts to uncharted territory. Only Jenkins, Vickery, Stephen Jones, Brian O'Driscoll and the captain, Paul O'Connell, know what it is to take the field of a match of this magnitude. The shortage of experience is of no concern to McGeechan, however, even though the Springboks have more than 700 caps between them. "It doesn't matter whether this is your first season of international rugby, as it is for someone like Ugo Monye, or your 10th," the coach said. "Nothing prepares you for this. "
O'Connell, who played all three Tests in New Zealand in 2005 and drew a blank, added: "The crucial part of the tour is now, because the mindset changes when the Test side is named. It's about how we all react, those of us who have been chosen and those who haven't."
Euan Murray, the Scotland tight-head prop who suffered ankle damage during this week's match with the Southern Kings, will not play again on tour. McGeechan has sent for John Hayes, the Irish prop, to play a part in Tuesday's difficult fixture with the Emerging Springboks in Cape Town.
Thinking outside the Boks: Tasks facing the Lions XV
Lee Byrne Key figure whose kicking will be a major attacking card.
Tommy Bowe The success story of the tour. But Bryan Habana will test him defensively.
Brian O'Driscoll More than capable of coping with the trickery of Adrian Jacobs.
Jamie Roberts The Lions' not-so-secret weapon. Faces a big physical confrontation with Jean de Villiers.
Ugo Monye From England second-stringer to Lions first choice. A mighty step up.
Stephen Jones Experienced and battle-hardened, but a little short of form. The pressure will be huge
Mike Phillips The Welshman must draw the sting from the world's best scrum-half, Fourie du Preez.
Gethin Jenkins Brilliant around the field, but will he expose John Smit's inadequacies at the scrum?
Lee Mears The most accurate line-out thrower on tour – and accuracy will be critical.
Phil Vickery Picked to hit as many rucks as possible, the grand old man deserves his place.
Alun Wyn Jones Who would want to take on Bakkies Botha?
Paul O'Connell A massive task. Victor Matfield is the world's supreme line-out technician.
Tom Croft No doubts about his athleticism, but Juan Smith will test his stomach for the fight.
David Wallace The breakdown has been a mystery all tour. Can Munster's finest make sense of it?
Jamie Heaslip Bags of energy, and he'll need it against Pierre Spies.
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