Test selection headache for Cotton

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
Selectors are meant to enjoy these sorts of problems, but Fran Cotton and his Lions management team admitted yesterday that it would be easier to find Lord Lucan than piece together the strongest Test side from 35 in-form players. In a startling break with received wisdom the tour hierarchy will not settle on their team to face South Africa in Cape Town tomorrow week until after Tuesday's final warm-up match with the Emerging Springboks.

A number of players considered virtual certainties for the first Test - notably Tim Stimpson, Jeremy Guscott and Jason Leonard - will sit out tomorrow's desperately difficult game with Natal, the reigning Currie Cup champions and consistent Super 12 high-flyers, in Durban. Instead of giving their putative Test line-up some valuable match practice, Cotton and his colleagues have opted for yet more experimentation. That, they say, is a clear sign of the intensity of competition for places.

"We've told the players that they are causing us enormous difficulty," said the manager as he continued to revel in the glory of Wednesday's dramatic victory over Gauteng in Johannesburg. "Too many of them are playing well for this to be easy and it just goes to show that our original selections were justified. We're not stringing people along; we genuinely feel that we need to take account of every game before making a final decision on the shape of the Test team."

Cotton readily accepted that Neil Jenkins, who kicked quite beautifully at Ellis Park after replacing the injured Tony Underwood, was the No 1 marksman in the party. The Welshman gets a chance at full-back tomorrow and if he proves himself to be more than merely a right boot with an in- built radar, he will press Stimpson hard for the Test position.

Tom Smith, the increasingly influential Scottish prop, also has an opportunity to secure his place after putting himself in pole position with a dynamic display against Gauteng. Several others have ground to make up: Allan Bateman and Scott Gibbs at centre, Keith Wood at hooker and Eric Miller at No 8: nothing short of the real McCoy will suffice.

Bateman has the unenviable task of shifting Guscott from the outside centre berth but after a week of frustrating hamstring problems the former rugby league international will give it his best shot outside the obvious Test half-back partnership of Rob Howley and Gregor Townsend.

Gibbs, meanwhile, returns from his one match suspension with an awkward brief: he will need to be ultra-physical to survive against Pieter Muller, one of the most aggressive centres in South African rugby, but he must also stay on the right side of the law.

BRITISH ISLES (v Natal, Durban, tomorrow): N Jenkins (Pontypridd and Wales); I Evans (Llanelli and Wales), A Bateman (Richmond and Wales), S Gibbs (Swansea and Wales), A Tait (Newcastle and Scotland); G Townsend (Northampton and Scotland), R Howley (Cardiff and Wales); T Smith (Watsonians and Scotland), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), D Young (Cardiff and Wales), M Johnson (Leicester and England) (capt), S Shaw (Bristol and England), L Dallaglio (Wasps and England), E Miller (Leicester and Ireland), R Hill (Saracens and England). Replacements: N Beal (Northampton and England), M Catt (Bath and England), M Dawson (Northampton and England), M Regan (Bristol and England), J Leonard (Harlequins and England), R Wainwright (Watsonians and Scotland).

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