'Midweekers' cling to Test hope

Lions playing today have a final chance to impress and win places to face the Boks
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The Independent Online

On any other Lions tour, it would have been the team of the dead men. On this tour, it is a team drawn from those still raging against the dying of the light. Most of those who flew straight to Durban, the venue for this Saturday's opening Test against South Africa, were clearly front-runners for duty against the Springboks: after all, they included Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Roberts and the captain Paul O'Connell, all of whom have long been dead certs on the selection front. But there are still some grey areas that will only be resolved in this afternoon's meeting with the Southern Kings here.

If truth be told, no one wanted to be picked for today's game. A midweek match against relatively soft opposition 96 hours before a Test is not the place to be seen, generally speaking. But as Ian McGeechan, the head coach, reiterated once again yesterday, things are different this time. The side for Saturday will not be picked until the side of today has had its say.

"We've been honest with the players right from the start and I'm not trying to hide anything now," McGeechan commented after naming a team featuring Donncha O'Callaghan, the Munster lock, as captain. "I'm not going to say one thing and do another. These players don't deserve that."

Even hardened professionals of Simon Shaw's aged vintage still believe they have a chance of making the cut for this Saturday's game of games. Shaw knows what it is to take a slap in the face on a Lions tour – a dozen years ago, in this very country, he lost out to the Irish lock Jeremy Davidson after starting the tour as a molten favourite to play in the Tests – and on that basis, he would seem a prime candidate for the "come off it, Geech, pull the other one" brigade. But yesterday, the 35-year-old was still hoping against hope.

Asked whether he felt he was competing for a place in the Test starting line-up or a seat on the bench, he replied: "Probably more so on the bench. But knowing these coaches, especially Warren Gatland (the forwards strategist), a huge performance in this game could really do it for a player. Do I buy into what Ian and the rest of them are saying? Yes. They've certainly been very straight so far. After the first game in Rustenburg, Warren told me in no uncertain terms that I'd been crap."

A number of players – Keith Earls, Riki Flutey, Andrew Sheridan, Nathan Hines, Joe Worsley, Andrew Powell and O'Callaghan – will start today's game despite having been part of the run-on team for last Saturday's narrow victory over Western Province. Common sense dictates that none will be picked in the elite XV for Durban: with the best will in the world, it would be asking a lot of any tourist to play three times in a week. Yet O'Callaghan still clings to the belief he has a chance.

"I think this tour has taken a lot of us out of our comfort zones," he said. "It's old school, something we really haven't experienced until now. When you see someone like Harry Ellis play a whole game on Saturday and then volunteer for training on Sunday, despite feeling under the weather, you realise how far people are willing to go for the squad. Playing three times in a week would be tough, but it wouldn't be a problem."

One of the fascinations of today's contest will be the performance of James Hook at outside-half. A late call-up – the sudden problems suffered by the goal-kicking wing Leigh Halfpenny, allied to the serious injury that ruled the centre Tom Shanklin out of the trip, persuaded the coaches to add him to the roster – he has played comfortably well enough to change the thinking in respect of the No 10 position. A stellar performance today would heap untold amounts of pressure on the senior stand-offs in the party, Stephen Jones and Ronan O'Gara.

"Hook has been brilliant, to be fair," acknowledged McGeechan, who rarely waxes lyrical about an individual for fear of lifting a corner of the curtain drawn across his thought processes. "He's trained very well, played with a lot of focus, his kicking has been accurate. More than anything, he's happy to be here. He's shown that in everything he's done. There again, all the players have shown it. Their attitude has been quite incredible."

Only Rob Kearney, the Irish full-back, was regarded as unfit for selection, although the Welsh wing Shane Williams, named in the team, was suffering from a stomach bug that left his participation today in doubt. Those players not required for the Port Elizabeth trek travelled straight to Durban, as did the defence coach Shaun Edwards and a couple of members of the conditioning and medical staff. The party will reunite in the Test city tonight.

Meanwhile, the Springbok squad, training in Durban, was fleshed out by the appearance of Heinrich Brussow among their number. The Free State flanker turned in the individual performance of the tour so far in Bloemfontein 10 days ago, repeatedly stealing Lions possession on the floor and generally making a nuisance of himself around the breakdown. With Schalk Burger, the long-standing Springbok "fetcher", struggling with a calf injury and no like-for-like replacement named in the original squad, Brussow's appearance could prove hugely significant.

Today's team... and Chris Hewett's XV for the first Test

Tonight's team:

K Earls (Ireland); S Williams (Wales), R Flutey (England), G D'Arcy (Ireland), L Fitzgerald (Ireland); J Hook (Wales), M Blair (Scotland); A Sheridan (England), R Ford (Scotland), E Murray (Scotland), S Shaw (England), D O'Callaghan (Ireland, capt), N Hines (Scotland), J Worsley (England), A Powell (Wales).

Replacements: M Rees (Wales), A Jones (Wales), T Croft (England), D Wallace (Ireland), H Ellis (England), R O'Gara (Ireland), U Monye (England).

Chris Hewett's pick for the first Test:

Full-back: Lee Byrne is the hot favourite, and rightly so.

Right wing: A no-brainer. Tommy Bowe.

Outside centre: Brian O'Driscoll. Who else could it be?

Inside centre: Jamie Roberts, the power option, leads the way.

Left wing: Ugo Monye shades it.

Outside-half: James Hook has thrown a spanner in the works.

Scrum-half: Mike Phillips is ahead of the game.

Front row: It looks like Gethin Jenkins at loose head next to the dependable Lee Mears. Tight head is still a mystery. Can Euan Murray force the pace today?

Locks: Alun-Wyn Jones seems to have it nailed next to captain Paul O'Connell.

Blind-side flanker: Tom Croft's youthful exuberance is a big asset.

Open-side flanker: The tightest of calls between David Wallace and Martyn Williams.

No 8: Jamie Heaslip is the front-runner.

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