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

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and Lee Mears, technically ahead of the game at hooker but compromised in the weights and measures department, has been replaced by Matthew Rees, a bigger front-row specimen who made a significant impact off the bench at King's Park.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."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks
tv

Regular cast member Ste Hay, played by Kieron Richardson, is about to test TV boundaries

Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
techPerils of 'text neck' revealed
News
i100
News
Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt
peopleStonewall boss says many fear it could ruin their careers
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

What are Jaden and Willow on about?

Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

Cold war

How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager
Isis in Iraq: Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants

Isis takes a big step back

Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants
Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits: How to shop politically

How to shop politically

Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits
The science of sex: What happens when science meets erotica

Sex on the brain

Fetishes, dominatrixes, kinks and erotica. They are subjects that should get the crowds flocking to a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection