Lions set for opening battle
Graham Jenkins in Johannesburg
May 29, 2009
Ospreys trio Lee Byrne, Tommy Bowe and Shane Williams will line up against the Royal XV in Rustenburg © Getty Images
The talking finally stops and the action begins on Saturday when the British & Irish Lions take on a Royal XV at the Royal Bakofeng Stadium in the opening clash of their tour of South Africa.
The class of 2009 will lay down their first marker against an invitational side in what will be the first game of an intense ten-match schedule that will culminate with an eagerly-anticipated three-Test series against the Springboks.
The tourists' preparations have been over-shadowed somewhat by the Bulls' Super 14 Final clash with the Chiefs that will take place in at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria the same afternoon as the Lions' clash in Rustenburg - and the FA Cup Final threatens to knock it further down the pecking order when it comes to the sports-mad fans in SA. But a significant statement from the Lions should see them take their fair share of the headlines come Sunday.
Head coach Ian McGeechan named a side that on paper looks to have the potential to make a big impact and with the door wide open in terms of selection for the Test clashes, as stressed by management this week, the tourists will not be found wanting in terms of motivation.
In the latest selection headache for the Lions, McGeechan was forced into some late changes on the morning of the game when No.8 Andy Powell and flanker Stephen Ferris became the latest players to be sidelined - going down with hand and lower leg strain respectively. As a result Ireland's David Wallace was drafted into the starting line-up with his compatriot Jamie Heaslip coming onto the bench.
Lions captain Paul O'Connell will lead his side into what will likely be a bruising encounter and he will be ably supported by a side featuring nine players making their first start for the elite tourists including the centre pairing of 23-year-old Wales' Jamie Roberts and Ireland's 21-year-old Keith Earls.
McGeechan opted for a strong and experienced pack to go into battle against a Royal XV determined to make the most of their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on such a stage. O'Connell will be joined in the second row by veteran Simon Shaw, the only survivor from the Lions' last visit to South Africa in 1997 in what could be a Test partnership in the making.
England's Andrew Sheridan and Wales duo Matthew Rees and Adam Jones will pack down in the front row while a formidable back row features England's Joe Worsley and Wales' Martyn Williams and Wallace will look to out-muscle their part-time rivals.
An exciting-looking backline features Ospreys team mates Lee Byrne, Shane Williams and Tommy Bowe at fullback and wing respectively. Ireland's Ronan O'Gara gets the first run in the No.10 jersey while scrum-half Mike Blair carries the flag for the Scots.
The Royal XV line-up - assembled from the Griquas, the Griffons, the Pumas, the Falcons and the Leopards rugby unions - is dominated by the Vodacom Cup-winning Griquas with coach Chaka Willemse hoping that their familiarity will lay the foundation for an upset.
The half-back pairing of fly-half Naas Olivier and scrum-half Sarel Pretorius, both of whom have Super 14 experience with the Cheetahs, will be vital to any victory while the Leopards' Wilhelm Koch will lead the side that includes further Super Rugby experience in the form of the Cheetahs' Bjorn Basson and Bees Roux and the Lions' Deon van Rensburg.
A physical confrontation is assured and the selection from both sides points to a bruising encounter. But let's not underestimate the attacking potential of both sides. Neither side will want to be drawn into a blow-for-blow forwards battle for 80 minutes although the Royal XV have talked up their plan to tire their rivals out.
Such a scenario seems unlikely against a well-drilled and professional outfit as the Lions - even at the end of a gruelling domestic season.
With the Lions from Heineken Cup finalists Leinster and Leicester and European Challenge Cup-winners Northampton rested from the tourists' first two games the chance to stake a claim for a Test jersey should ensure a high-octane showing from Lions. Expect them to weather a storm up front before taking a grip on the game and putting the hosts to the sword.
The Lions are out to make a statement - an impressive winning start with no casualties will be the ideal result but only time will tell what kind of selection headaches McGeechan and co will have heading into the second clash against the Lions next week.
The tourists have not lost a tour opener in South Africa since a narrow defeat to Western Transvaal in 1955 and more recently they accounted for an Eastern Province Invitational XV on their last visit in 1997. They will no doubt extend that record this weekend with an emphatic victory but it will be the manner of that victory and the success of the new combinations that will be of the most interest to Lions management and fans.
Royal XV: Russell Jeacocks (Leopards); Egon Seconds (Griquas), Deon van Rensburg (Leopards), Hanno Coetzee (Griquas), Bjorn Basson (Griquas); Naas Olivier (Griquas), Sarel Pretorius (Griquas); Albertus Buckle (Griquas), Rayno Barnes (Griquas), Bees Roux (Griquas), Rudi Mathee (Leopards), Jacques Lombard (Griquas), Wilhelm Koch (Leopards, capt), Devon Raubenheimer (Griquas), Jonathan Makoena (Griquas).
Replacements: Pellow van der Westhuizen (Leopards), Stef Roberts (Griquas), Rynard Landman (Leopards), RW Kember (Leopards), Jacques Coetzee (Pumas), Riaan Viljoen (Griquas), Jovan Bowles (Bulldogs).
British & Irish Lions: Lee Byrne (Ospreys/Wales), Tommy Bowe (Ospreys/Ireland), Keith Earls (Munster/Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Shane Williams (Ospreys/Wales), Ronan O'Gara (Munster/Ireland), Mike Blair (Edinburgh/Scotland), David Wallace (Munster/Ireland), Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Joe Worsley (London Wasps/England), Paul O'Connell (Munster/Ireland, captain), Simon Shaw (London Wasps/England), Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Matthew Rees (Scarlets/Wales), Andrew Sheridan (Sales Sharks/England)
Replacements: Lee Mears (Bath/England), Phil Vickery (London Wasps/England), Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland), Mike Phillips (Ospreys/Wales), Stephen Jones (Scarlets/Wales), Riki Flutey (London Wasps/England)
Referee: Marius Jonker (SA)
Assistant referees: J Peyper, R Rossouw Television Match Official: S Veldsman
Concussion, relegation and the mother of all surprises - it's the Monday Maul.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies