Andrew Powell, the Wales No 8, watched the last Lions tour of South Africa back home in Brecon and promised himself there and then that he would one day participate in the fun. A 12-year wait is long enough in anyone's language, but thanks to an infected insect bite on his right hand – or, depending on who was doing the telling, an injury of the more traditional kind suffered in training – he may have to wait a few days longer.
Both Powell, named in the starting line-up, and the Irish blind-side flanker Stephen Ferris, awarded a seat on the bench, are doubts for this afternoon's opening match against the so-called Royal XV, effectively Griqualand West plus a handful of reinforcements from neighbouring provincial teams. Ferris has a calf injury and, like his fellow back-rower, faces a fitness test shortly before kick-off.
The Lions could have done without this disruption, especially as Jamie Heaslip, the obvious replacement for Powell, has been held back for rest and recuperation reasons following his successful efforts on behalf of Leinster in last weekend's Heineken Cup final at Murrayfield. So too has Tom Croft of Leicester, who also featured in that game. If Ian McGeechan, the head coach, loses both Powell and Ferris, he will have little option but to revisit that strategy, unless he embarks on the dangerous road of playing people out of position.
Few people in South Africa expect the Royal XV to get within 25 points of the Lions, but Graham Rowntree, the scrum coach, was suitably cautious yesterday. "If people are saying this is the weakest team we'll meet all tour, that's a trap waiting for us right there," he remarked. "We expect an onslaught, especially in the early collisions. If I were playing for the Royal XV, I'd see it as the biggest game of my life. They'll be fired up for it, definitely."
Rowntree has been working his forwards hard on the set-piece front, with contenders for the Test series scrummaging against each other. Live scrummaging in training during the 1997 tour was quite a cabaret – the hookers Mark Regan and Barry Williams came to blows in the first week, while the forwards coach Jim Telfer presided over a notoriously intense session after a sticky performance against Western Province – but this time, the players have kept a lid on things. "We can't afford to do too much of it, and what there is has to be controlled," Rowntree said.
"There have been no flashpoints, and that pleases me. I don't want ego trips spoiling a session when we have so little preparation time available to us. Actually, I've been really impressed with how this group has come together in training. This has gone as well as anything I can remember."
A good part of this, he added, was down to Paul O'Connell's contribution as captain. Rowntree played much of his rugby under the leadership of Martin Johnson, both at club and international level, and he did not shy away from the comparisons frequently made between England's most successful captain and Ireland's prize lock. "Paul is a real competitor, and very professional in the way he goes about things," said the former prop. "What impresses me is that, although he is under a lot of pressure, he doesn't say things that don't need saying. Saying things at the right time is a characteristic of a great captain: Martin was very good at it and, like him, Paul doesn't go overboard."
Unlike Johnson, who led the Lions here in '97 but was carrying an injury for the first week or so, O'Connell will play in the tour opener, partnered in the boilerhouse of the scrum by the 35-year-old Simon Shaw. They will find themselves up against Rudi Mathee, quick enough to have played Currie Cup rugby on the flank last year, and Jacques Lombaard, a 30-year-old specialist second-rower who has represented three different highveld provinces in the last five years.
"I know the Lions believe the only way they can win in South Africa is to win the battle up front," said the Royal XV coach Chaka Willemse. "We'll be ready for them, but we are not going to be sucked into a forwards-only game. They have some big guys in the pack, so if we can move them across the field as much as possible, maybe we can tire them out."
Royal XV: R Jeacocks; E Seconds, D van Rensburg, H Coetzee, B Basson; N Olivier, S Pretorius; A Buckle, R Barnes, B Roux, R Mathee, J Lombard, W Koch (capt), D Raubenheimer, J Mokuena. Replacements: P van der Westhuizen, S Roberts, R Landman, R W Kember, J Coetzee, R Viljoen, J Bowles.
British and Irish Lions: L Byrne; T Bowe, K Earls, J Roberts, S Williams; R O'Gara, M Blair; A Sheridan, M Rees, A Jones, S Shaw, P O'Connell (capt), J Worsley, M Williams, A Powell. Replacements: L Mears, PVickery, A-W Jones, S Ferris, M Phillips, S Jones, R Flutey.
Referee: M Jonker (South Africa).Reuse content