Ian McGeechan intends to pick his side for next weekend's opening Test with the Springboks on Tuesday night, after the British and Irish Lions return from their short hop up the coast to Port Elizabeth, but by close of play at Newlands this afternoon, the head coach and sole decision-maker – "There won't be a vote; I'm a benevolent dictator," he said yesterday – will have a very clear idea of the what's what.
For some of the big names on this tour, including the experienced Welsh players Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams, the moment is now.
McGeechan has largely succeeded in discombobulating the South Africans on the selection front. When Peter de Villiers, his opposite number, was asked whether he was surprised at the tourists' decision not to field their optimum combination until the Test, he was irascible in the extreme. "How do you know the team that played the Sharks wasn't the Test team?" he snapped like a crocodile with a hangover, referring to the last midweek game in Durban. One-nil to McGeechan, then.
But the Lions are not much interested in point-scoring of the metaphorical kind, and they know things could go badly awry today. McGeechan himself described Western Province as "very dangerous" and "the biggest challenge for us so far", and there is certainly a whiff of peril in the air. In their Super 14 guise of the Stormers, they have hardly set the Cape ablaze: of their half-dozen home games in this season's tournament, they lost three and survived two others by the skin of their teeth.
However, they are largely free of Springbok interference and have highly-rated individuals in most areas of their side – Gcobani Bobo out wide, Peter Grant in midfield, Luke Watson and Duane Vermeulen in the back row. None of the Lions who started the game in Durban three nights ago are backing up today, although the Leicester flanker Tom Croft is on the bench. On previous tours, this would have been the time for a dry run ahead of the Test, but McGeechan's determination to give each and every candidate an opportunity to state his case remains strong. "If we're going to do what we've always told the players we'll do, it will take all six build-up games," he said. "That includes Tuesday's match with the Southern Kings. There were still be opportunities for people there."
The Lions have a perfect record at the moment – four from four, as the parlance has it – but they are badly in need of a half-decent Saturday display, nevertheless. Thus far, any tripping of the light fantastic has been performed in midweek. In the weekend contests, against a scratch Royal XV in Rustenburg and a highly motivated Free State Cheetahs side in Bloemfontein, it has been more of a case of the tourists tripping over. The statistics are startling: under floodlights on a Wednesday, the visitors have outscored their opponents 113-13 and by 15 tries to one; in broad daylight on a Saturday, they have shaded the points difference 63-49 and split the try count six-all.
This is as powerful a weekend side as the Lions have fielded, despite the absence of the captain Paul O'Connell, now wholly immersed in cotton wool ahead of the Test, and a sprinkling of other players widely considered to be certainties for the box-office games ahead: the full-back Lee Byrne, the centres Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts, the scrum-half Michael Phillips and the No 8 Jamie Heaslip.
The presence of Jones and Williams adds lustre to any formation, and with the two wings who ripped up the Golden Lions in that 74-point romp in Johannesburg 10 days ago – Tommy Bowe of Ireland and Ugo Monye of England – resuming active duty, there is a good deal of pace in the back division.
In addition, there is plenty of prime beef in the front row, where Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery will prop the Welsh hooker Matthew Rees. Sheridan, prone to the odd quiet spell, should be among the most highly motivated: despite the startling "third flanker" contributions of his direct rival for the loose-head berth, Gethin Jenkins, the deal has yet to be closed. The Lions sense a set-piece advantage over the Springboks, and one of the freakishly strong Englishman's vintage impersonations of a wrecking ball might persuade McGeechan to go for broke at scrum time.
Nathan Hines, the Australian-born, French-based Scot, is also on a mission, although by running him as a middle jumper rather than a front-of-the-line operator, the coaches have made his job just a little more difficult in respect of Test selection.
Hines must show himself both rough and tough enough to stand eyeball to eyeball with Bakkies Botha, the Springbok enforcer, and elastic enough to provide a steady supply of aerial possession.
No one seriously doubts his capacity to meet the first demand. As for the second, we will learn much this afternoon. "I don't want to be making easy decisions," McGeechan said. "When I sit down on Tuesday night, I want to have some really tough calls. People say we're taking a risk by following this policy of giving everyone an opportunity, but it would have been a greater risk to do otherwise.
"We've created a challenging environment for ourselves, but if you ask me if I think we're on track, I'd say we're not far off."
Lions team to play Western Prov.
*R Kearney (Ireland); T Bowe, K Earls (both Ireland), R Flutey, U Monye (both England); S Jones (Wales), H Ellis (England); A Sheridan (England), M Rees (Wales), P Vickery (England, capt), D O'Callaghan (Ireland), N Hines (Scotland), J Worsley (England), M Williams, A Powell (both Wales).
*Replacements: R Ford, E Murray (both Sco), S Shaw, T Croft (both Eng), M Blair (Sco), J Hook (Wal), G D'Arcy (Ire).
*Venue: Newlands (KO 2pm BST)
*Referee: M Lawrence (SA)Reuse content