All 36 members of the Lions squad – all 37, if the Wales wing Leigh Halfpenny gets himself fit and finds his way to South Africa in reasonable time – will play in one of the first three tour matches, but those selected for tomorrow's opening fixture in the far-flung outpost of the veld known as Rustenburg have a significant advantage. At the very least, Jamie Roberts, Ronan O'Gara, Andrew Sheridan, Adam Jones, Simon Shaw and Joe Worsley have an opportunity to pile pressure on their rivals for the Test positions most obviously up for grabs.
And pressure is what this trip is all about. Peter de Villiers, the Springboks coach, made that abundantly clear when he dismissed, almost out of hand, the visitors' chances of attaining the legendary status bestowed upon Willie John McBride and the rest of the 1974 vintage who swept through this land from top to bottom and flew home unbeaten. His words reached Lions ears almost immediately, and yesterday came the response.
First, the captain Paul O'Connell made his feelings known. "The 1974 Lions are legends because of what they achieved here," said the Irishman, implying that De Villiers had got things the wrong way round by suggesting that those tourists had arrived as legends and did no more than live up to their reputations. "To win in South Africa is what legends are made of, and it's what we're here to do. It's a bit early for anyone to be thinking about this sort of thing, but I certainly see a Lions series here as the ultimate for any player."
Next up was the manager Gerald Davies, a great wing who would have played in '74 had he not quietly declined the invitation to tour as an act of conscience. "The past is the past and we should let it rest there," he said. "It is not appropriate to look over our shoulders at 1974; it is the future that is important. No one is yet in a position to judge how this squad of players will come to be regarded, but I do believe we have a very gifted group of people competing for places in the Test matches."
That competition will be exceptionally intense, for there is no obvious clue as to how the elite team will come together over the next fortnight or so. The Leinster players who prevailed over Leicester in a hard Heineken Cup final six days ago – Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip – were not considered for tomorrow's meeting with the Royal XV. Neither, come to that, were the two Tigers who played against them, the scrum-half Harry Ellis and the versatile back-five forward Tom Croft, or the Northampton prop Euan Murray, who had helped his club to the European Challenge Cup title 24 hours previously. Of the seven who might have played in Rustenburg but were not even picked on the bench, the likes of Gethin Jenkins and David Wallace are expected to push hard for a Test slot.
If the decision to pick Worsley, so effective as England's open-side flanker during the Six Nations Championship, in the blind-side role was a mild surprise, the move to give Keith Earls, the least experienced member of the party, a run at outside-centre was entirely predictable, given O'Driscoll's current status as a man at rest. O'Connell, old enough to have played with his fellow Munsterman's father (which he did, funnily enough) pronounced himself agog at the youngster's promise.
"Keith is a laid-back kind of guy: unassuming, very modest, keen to learn," the captain said. "But he's something special, blessed with pace and an elusive style of running, with a great step and a great fend. He's also been given charge of our lion mascot, being the youngest player here until Leigh Halfpenny shows up. If he's seen without it, there are all sorts of fines and punishments. I think he's looking forward to Leigh's arrival."
The mascot has yet to be named, although Andrew Powell, the richly imaginative No 8 from Wales, has suggested "Powelly". Worryingly, no member of the party has yet come up with a better alternative.
Lions team in Rustenburg
To play Royal XV tomorrow:
L Byrne (Ospreys & Wales); T Bowe (Ospreys & Ireland), K Earls (Munster & Ireland), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues & Wales), S Williams (Ospreys & Wales); R O'Gara (Munster & Ireland), M Blair (Edinburgh & Scotland); A Sheridan (Sales Sharks & England), M Rees (Scarlets & Wales), A Jones (Ospreys & Wales), S Shaw (London Wasps & England), P O'Connell (Munster & Ireland, capt), J Worsley (London Wasps & England), M Williams (Cardiff Blues/Wales), A Powell (Cardiff Blues & Wales).
Replacements: L Mears (Bath & England), P Vickery (London Wasps & England), A-W Jones (Ospreys & Wales), S Ferris (Ulster & Ireland), M Phillips (Ospreys & Wales), S Jones (Scarlets & Wales), R Flutey (London Wasps & England).Reuse content