Rowntree promises to shuffle pack

Lions' scrum coach admits set-piece issues cost tourists points in first Test defeat
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The Independent Online

Graham Rowntree, the scrummaging technician on the British and Irish Lions' back-room staff, must have thrown his fair share of punches during a long career as an international loose-head prop, and he was certainly in no mood to pull any as he reflected on the collapse of the tourists' set-piece operation during the first Test defeat by the Springboks here on Saturday.

Rowntree admitted the South Africans' early scrum supremacy was "hard to take" and said changes would be made to the pack for this week's must-win match in Pretoria.

"Our scrummaging problems cost us points," he acknowledged. "We didn't dominate the engagement and as the referee did exactly what we'd asked of him before the game, which was to reward the dominant scrum, we can't complain.

"I'm not going to get into a slanging match or start talking about the legalities of it all. We have to take it on the chin and set about ensuring it doesn't happen again in the second Test. A splintering scrum is a demoralising thing for any rugby team."

Rowntree described Phil Vickery, whose failure to handle the Zimbabwean-born loose-head prop Tendai "the Beast" Mtawarira at the set-piece put the Lions in a sea of trouble and resulted in a humiliating retreat to the bench just four minutes into the second half, as "upset", adding: "Phil is an honest man and he admits he struggled.

"Beast got under us at the scrum engagement and put Phil under pressure. When a scrum is being pressured like that, the referee has easy decisions to make.

"But this isn't about hanging any one individual out to dry. Phil is sore and so am I – this has happened in my area and I'm not happy – but there is a collective accountability for a scrum performance that involves the whole pack. There was one really uncomfortable scrum after about nine minutes when we were lifted off the floor. That was some effort from the Boks. If I was their scrum coach, I'd already have retired to Panama with a big cigar."

The Lions selectors now have a delicate squad-management job ahead of them. The physical wreckage from a hard Test was considerable – the full-back Lee Byrne, the wing Tommy Bowe, the prop Gethin Jenkins and the flanker Tom Croft were all nursing injuries of one kind or another yesterday – yet the tourists must find a way of fronting up against a highly talented and highly motivated Emerging Springboks team in Cape Town tomorrow.

This last midweek fixture of the trip looked a dangerous one for the Lions when the programme was announced last year, and with the coaches keen to make changes for the Pretoria Test, and therefore desperate to keep certain individuals out of the firing line, the piecing together of tomorrow's team represents a serious challenge.

They hope James Hook, the young outside-half from Port Talbot in Wales, will be fit to start after recovering from the concussion he suffered during last week's rough game with the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, but this will be subject to an examination by an independent neurological specialist.

If Hook is not permitted to play, the stand-off from King's Park, Stephen Jones, may have to be pressed into service on the bench.

Andrew Sheridan, surely a candidate for a starting place in Pretoria, is unlikely to play against the Emerging Springboks.

The Sale prop is struggling with a back problem and spent part of yesterday having hydro-treatment, so the coaches have called up Tim Payne, the Wasps and England loose-head specialist, to do a turn in Cape Town. It may be that Payne and John Hayes, the Irish prop added to the squad late last week as a replacement for the stricken Euan Murray, will start together in the front row.

Byrne is considered the biggest doubt ahead of the Pretoria Test. The Welshman failed to make it to half-time at King's Park after breaking down with a recurrence of a long-standing foot injury.

Ireland's Rob Kearney, who made a significant contribution off the bench on Saturday, will probably start in Pretoria regardless of whether Byrne is fit.