Taylor's tour in doubt as Lions tune up for real deal down south

The British and Irish Lions have never lost a game played in the northern hemisphere - their problems tend to begin when they find themselves south of the equator, mixing it with the Wallabies, the Springboks and, in the worst-case scenario, the All Blacks. So this evening's meeting with Argentina at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff is unlikely to cause them undue grief, especially as the Pumas are well below optimum strength.

Sir Clive Woodward, the head coach of the four-nation collective, insists he is viewing the fixture as the first match of the New Zealand tour, even though the flight to Auckland does not leave until Wednesday, and the match has been granted full Test status. What is more, the stadium authorities expect a crowd well in excess of 55,000. But to all intents and purposes, this is nothing more than a warm-up. The nerve-endings will be far more raw in the 24 hours before the non-international contest with Bay of Plenty in Rotorua in 12 days' time than they are at the moment.

This is not to suggest that every last Lion slept comfortably in his bed last night. Simon Taylor, the gifted Scottish loose forward who made the cut for the 2001 tour of Australia only to be invalided back to Edinburgh following a brief appearance in the opening match, is still struggling with the hamstring injury he picked up during a training session last Friday and is not certain to travel. He will be assessed further over the next 24 hours.

Matt Stevens, the young Bath prop regarded by many good judges as a strong candidate for the Tests against the All Blacks, was expected to train yesterday after weeks of knee trouble, and his initial scrummaging efforts would have been accompanied by some sharp intakes of breath among the coaches. But there was still no sign of Malcolm O'Kelly, the Irish lock who strained his abdominal muscles during a session last week. He will not train again until the Lions arrive on the north island.

In the 117 years of British Isles touring, the Lions have played only two games on their own continent - against the Barbarians at Twickenham in 1977 and the French in Paris in 1989.

"We're two from two, so the pressure is on the selected players not to get this one wrong," said Ian McGeechan, one of Woodward's chief lieutenants. McGeechan knows a good deal about pressure, having coached Lions parties on tours to all three major southern hemisphere destinations, and for all his fine words, he knows the barometer mark is low on this occasion.

Of the starting XV, only Jonny Wilkinson, Danny Grewcock and Martin Corry are heavily favoured to take the field against the All Blacks in Christchurch on 25 June. Others have a decent shot at Test preferment, not least the Leicester flanker Lewis Moody, but by and large, tonight's line-up has a midweek look about it. All the same, it should be too strong for opponents whose young players are very green indeed and whose best-known combatants - Federico Mendez, Mauricio Reggiardo, Lisandro Arbizu - are well past their sell-by dates.

"To be realistic, I don't know if we have much chance of winning," admitted their likeable captain, Felipe Contepomi. "But over and above the result, I'd be happy if this team, with a bunch of young players, maintained the Pumas style, the same sense of passion, loyalty and sacrifice."

Of course, the most successful Lions parties of the past - the vintages of 1971, 1974, 1989 and 1997 - could summon passion on the grand scale. The least successful Lions were reduced to laughing stocks, however, and if their official "anthem", the desperate lyrics of which were unveiled yesterday, sets the tone for the next couple of months, it is hard not to fear the worst. Listen, and weep.

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