O'Driscoll leads strong Lions side for first hurdle of toughest tour

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bishop Pihopa Kingi, the elder of the Maori tribe of Te Arawa, set the tone of the British and Irish Lions' tour of New Zealand yesterday by telling Sir Clive Woodward and his massed ranks of players, coaches and medical staff: "We offer you a warm welcome to Rotorua. It will be different when you return at the weekend." The good bishop said this with an ironic smile on his face, but Woodward took him seriously enough to name at least a dozen Test contenders in his side for the game with Bay of Plenty on Saturday.

Bishop Pihopa Kingi, the elder of the Maori tribe of Te Arawa, set the tone of the British and Irish Lions' tour of New Zealand yesterday by telling Sir Clive Woodward and his massed ranks of players, coaches and medical staff: "We offer you a warm welcome to Rotorua. It will be different when you return at the weekend." The good bishop said this with an ironic smile on his face, but Woodward took him seriously enough to name at least a dozen Test contenders in his side for the game with Bay of Plenty on Saturday.

The Lions trained briefly in Auckland before travelling to this geothermally charged centre of Maori culture for the long-awaited "powhiri" - the kind of official welcome that might, a couple of hundred years ago, have sent visitors from the northern hemisphere heading back out to sea with a degree of haste more commonly associated with Shane Williams or Brian O'Driscoll than with scurvy-ridden sailors. There were spears, there was warpaint and there was the inevitable "haka", the first of many on this trip but no less hair-raising for that. Life will not get easier any time soon.

As anticipated, Woodward will retrace his steps this weekend armed with a team significantly stronger than that which almost imploded against an inexperienced Argentinian side in last week's warm-up international at the Millennium Stadium. O'Driscoll's presence alone ensures a more potent threat at centre, and with the extravagantly coiffeured Gavin Henson alongside him - this week's hair colour is Lions red, in case you were wondering - there is a sense that the head coach wants to establish the midfield pecking order without further ado.

Tom Shanklin's appearance on the left wing may also be significant, especially in light of the delayed arrivals of two obvious Test candidates in Jason Robinson and Gareth Thomas, neither of whom are expected here much before the end of next week. Shanklin, a stand-out performer for Wales throughout the Six Nations Championship, played his rugby at outside-centre in that tournament. However, he scored freely from the wing during last November's international window, and his incendiary mix of pace, strength and size will be suited to the heavy conditions encountered in a New Zealand winter.

Shanklin's wing partner will be Mark Cueto of Sale, who was not even in the 45-man squad this time a fortnight ago, despite his status as the most dependable and prolific finisher in British Isles rugby. Called to duty as a result of Iain Balshaw's latest injury, Cueto will face last season's National Provincial Championship semi-finalists with a record of 28 tries in 34 matches since the start of the season - the kind of strike-rate that should have seen him selected instantly, if not sooner. Needless to say, a sense of injustice at his initial rejection was not foremost in his mind yesterday.

"It's not relevant, is it?" he said. "What is relevant is the fact that I'm here now. Last September, I didn't make England's élite squad, which ran to 60 players, yet I made my Test debut in the first international of the season, played through the autumn series and the Six Nations and ended up with the equivalent of a try a game. I think I'm in the best form of my career, and I'm delighted to have this opportunity to keep things ticking over. I played right to the end of the club campaign, but far from being tired, I think it's an advantage. Things can slip very quickly if you don't play for three or four weeks."

Martyn Williams, voted the player of the Six Nations after a series of supremely intelligent displays on the open-side flank, is worried about this very issue. "I haven't played for six weeks," said the Welshman after being named in a back-row combination featuring two World Cup winners from England, the blind-side flanker Richard Hill and the No 8 Lawrence Dallaglio. "It's at times like this that you envy the English structure, which provides people with the chance to keep playing right up until the summer tour begins. Mentally, I'll be well rested and sharp; physically, I'll probably be blowing after about 20 minutes. A long break isn't always ideal."

For all Williams' reservations about his own state of readiness for what will be a full-on encounter played out before a capacity crowd of 30,000, he has a heaven-sent opportunity to move ahead of Neil Back and Lewis Moody, the two Leicester breakaways, in the contest for the Test position. Back, suspended for punching Joe Worsley of Wasps during the Premiership final at Twickenham on 14 May, is not available until the Lions' game with Wellington a fortnight on Wednesday. Moody, meanwhile, had more style than substance about him against the Pumas.

With Gethin Jenkins and Paul O'Connell included in the Lions' tight five and Dwayne Peel chosen at scrum-half, the early favourites for Test places are there in numbers. The longer-odds candidates will also be keen to catch the eye, none more so than Matt Stevens, the young Bath prop, whose ownership of a half-decent singing voice lumbered him with the task of leading a semi-musical response to the Maori formalities at the Tamatekapua Meeting House. If he scrummages as well as he croons, he may well make the squad for the first meeting with the All Blacks in Christchurch on 25 June.

The Wales outside-half Stephen Jones is expected to arrive tomorrow, having helped his French club, Clermont Auvergne, to a Heineken Cup place for next season. Clermont Auvergne, formerly known as Montferrand, beat Agen 31-8 at the weekend to secure the seventh and final French place in the élite tournament.

Thomas, another Welsh Francophile currently playing for Toulouse, is still in the country, however. By beating Auch to finish fourth in the league, the new European champions assured themselves of a place in the semi-finals of Le Championnat this weekend.

Woodward's trusted men

LIONS v BAY OF PLENTY (Saturday, 8.10am BST; Sky Sports 1)

15 J Lewsey (England)

14 M Cueto (England)

13 B O'Driscoll (Ireland, capt)

12 G Henson (Wales)

11 T Shanklin (Wales)

10 R O'Gara (Ireland)

9 D Peel (Wales)

1 G Jenkins (Wales)

2 G Bulloch (Scotland)

3 M Stevens (England)

4 P O'Connell (Ireland)

5 B Kay (England)

6 R Hill (England)

7 M Williams (Wales)

8 L Dallaglio (England)

Replacements: S Thompson (England), A Sheridan (England), M O'Kelly (Ireland), M Corry (England), M Dawson (England), C Hodgson (England), G D'Arcy (Ireland).

Comments