Selectors rely on luck of Irish to keep series alive
Only two English players left in side for second Test as McGeechan rings the changes
Friday 26 June 2009
In this season of seasons for Irish rugby, Ian McGeechan and his fellow Lions selectors have pinned all their hopes of staying alive against South Africa on the good men and true of the Emerald Isle. No fewer than seven Irishmen will start tomorrow's second Test in Pretoria – a post-war record, beating the half-dozen they contributed during the 1959 and 1983 series in New Zealand – and if they can somehow find a way of squaring the argument with the Springboks, there will not be a dry glass to be found anywhere between Dublin and Limerick.
The English have taken the brunt of the fallout from last Saturday's narrow, not to say unnecessary, defeat in Durban. Ugo Monye, who fluffed a couple of clear-cut scoring opportunities, has lost his place on the left wing to Luke Fitzgerald; Phil Vickery, given a thorough seeing-to at the set piece by Tendai Mtawarira and penalised off the field as a consequence, has given way to the increasingly impressive Adam Jones; and Lee Mears, technically ahead of the game at hooker but compromised in the weights and measures department, has been replaced by Matthew Rees, a bigger front-row specimen who made a significant impact off the bench at King's Park.
England have only two players in the line-up – their lowest tally since the opening meeting with the All Blacks 26 years ago, when the forwards Maurice Colclough and Peter Winterbottom found themselves accompanied by 13 Celts in Christchurch. In the five series played around the southern hemisphere over the last two decades, the red rose contingent has on average accounted for half the starting team. That long domination of Lions affairs is now officially at an end, although it is an open question whether this fact will register with the decision-making classes at Twickenham.
Happily, the one Englishman promoted rather than demoted is Simon Shaw, the 35-year-old lock who travelled here on Lions business in 1997 as a hot favourite for the Test pack but was beaten to the punch by Jeremy Davidson, of Ireland, not least because line-out lifting was suddenly legalised and Davidson was around six stone lighter than his rival. Shaw, the only survivor from the '97 squad, was selected ahead of Alun-Wyn Jones and will go toe to toe with the intimidating Springbok enforcer Bakkies Botha at the front of the line-out.
McGeechan has made five changes in total, the last of them at full-back, where Rob Kearney, one of three Dubliners in the back division, replaces the injured Lee Byrne, who picked up a hand injury to go with the foot problems that forced him from the pitch last weekend. Byrne had his left thumb scanned at a local hospital yesterday and was immediately ruled out of the rest of the tour. He will fly home to Wales over the weekend.
"This selection is about making adjustments," explained McGeechan, who was bitterly frustrated by his side's failure to make the most of their opportunities in Durban (hence the switch on the wing) and felt the need to beef up the Lions' act at scrum and maul (hence the changes at the sharp end).
"There were a number of things I wanted to keep from last weekend, and others I wanted to alter. Clearly, the scrum is a very important area of the game, and I think Simon will help us improve. He is often criticised for his line-out work but I happen to think he's very able in that area, and anyway, Tom Croft has given us a degree of flexibility there. We're very happy with Tom's progress. He has grown as a rugby player on this tour and now performs a very specific role for us."
Had the Lions coaches been really bold, they would have followed the Springboks' example and gone for a five-two split between forwards and backs on the bench, with Shane Williams and James Hook covering all seven positions outside the scrum. Instead, they have opted for the traditional four-three model, with Williams installed as the replacement wide man and Hook left out altogether. Should the altitude in Pretoria leave the Lions pack gasping in the later stages, McGeechan may regret not being more inventive.
By electing to prepare for a high-veld Test at sea level, the Lions have taken a calculated risk. However, the captain Paul O'Connell insisted yesterday that the tourists had made the right call. "We have every confidence in the medical team's decision to manage it this way," the Munster lock said. "It's wrong to say this altitude thing is all in the mind – it makes a difference, absolutely – but it's not a massive deal. You just have to dig deep when the burn kicks in towards the end of a match."
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