Lions must show their teeth
Graham Jenkins in Johannesburg
June 1, 2009
Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll in relaxed mood ahead of Wednesday night's clash with the Lions at Ellis Park © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions go into their second tour game against the Golden Lions in Johannesburg on Wednesday night under pressure to erase the memory of the faltering display in their opening victory over the Royal XV on Saturday.
New combinations, testing conditions and nerves did their best to dash the Lions' hopes of an all-conquering tour at the Royal Bakofeng Stadium before they conjured an escape to record a flattering 37-25 victory. A new-look Lions side, led by Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll will attempt to make amends at Ellis Park wary that another unconvincing performance will trigger the alarm bells.
The Lions' latest encounter is set to be a world away from their tour bow in more ways than one. From the picturesque high veldt of Phokeng near Rustenburg the focus switches to the metropolis of Johannesburg and instead of an invitational side they face Super 14 opposition - a significant step up in class. The Lions can also expect an intimidating atmosphere at the cauldron that is Ellis Park with a reported crowd of 40,000 expected to dwarf that which greeted them last weekend.
In addition there is no other high-profile clash to occupy the hearts and minds of the masses as there was with Saturday's Super 14 final romp for the Bulls meaning the Lions will come under even closer scrutiny from this rugby-mad nation.
As expected it is a challenge the Lions and head coach Ian McGeechan are embracing - promising to build on the few positives that emerged from the Royal XV clash. The Lions refusal to accept defeat last Saturday hinted at a growing strength of character and self-belief and there were notable performance in the centres and up front while they also had some joy at the lineout and the scrum.
However, the glut of errors and the fact that they shipped three tries will have dominated any post-game analysis. Those defensive lapses will have infuriated assistant coach Shaun Edwards and we can expect a tightening up in that department this time out with defence likely to decide the victors.
With the Experimental Law Variations now a thing of the past, the maul has returned as a key weapon and while plotting how best to use it the Lions are also aware they must also master a plan to nullify any such incision by their opponents. The ability to have unlimited numbers at the lineout has also now gone ensuring yet more tweaking of defensive patterns.
O'Driscoll, making his first appearance for the Lions since his sour end to the 2005 tour to New Zealand, will look to lead by example and add some steel to the Lions' defence. We are not likely to see much of the talismanic centre as we build towards the Test series with management keen to protect one of their prized assets. As a result we can expect nothing but the kind of fully-committed and inspirational performance that O'Driscoll has delivered time and time again for Leinster and Ireland this season.
Elsewhere, David Wallace backs up from his tour bow last weekend but switches to his preferred openside position while Jamie Roberts, one of few to catch the eye against the Royal XV, and winger Tommy Bowe have also been retained.
Fullback Rob Kearney, winger Ugo Monye, flanker Tom Croft and lock Nathan Hines will all make their Lions debuts. No.8 Jamie Heaslip, scrum-half Mike Phillips, lock Alun-Wyn Jones, prop Phil Vickery and hooker Lee Mears all start after coming off the bench in Rustenberg at the weekend while Wales fly-half Stephen Jones get his first chance to compete for a Test jersey, replacing Ronan O'Gara.
Gethin Jenkins also comes into the side while loose-forwards Stephen Ferris and Andy Powell, who were ruled out of Saturday's game with hand and calf injuries respectively, are on the bench. Head coach Ian McGeechan has also included fly-half James Hook and hooker Ross Ford, who both received late call-ups, among the replacements.
The tourists will have studied their opponent's Super 14 fortunes coming into this game and will have noted their expansive leanings but the hosts may be some what of an unknown quantity under new coach Hans Coetzee who stepped up after Eugene Eloff was relived of his duties last week. Reports of a player strike surfaced following that decision but the cracks appear to have been papered over ahead of the much-prized clash with their namesake.
Stripped of Springboks Jannes Labuschagne and Heinke van der Merwe through injury and Jacque Fourie due to his involvement with the current national squad, the Lions can still call on international fly-half Andre Pretorius while fellow Springbok Lawrence Sephaka will pack down at loose-head prop.
Fullback Earl Rose, who started for the South African XV against a Namibian XV on Friday night and has since been named in the Springboks squad, will start from the replacements bench.
The strong-running No.8 Willem Alberts has been singled out by the British & Irish Lions coaching team this week as a key threat while the centre pairing of Jannie Boshoff and Doppies la Grange will also test any defensive improvement claimed by the tourists. Scrum-half Jano Vermaak is another livewire to watch and will no doubt keep his opposite Phillips and the Lions back row busy.
The plan for the British & Irish Lions, as it was on Saturday, will be to lay down a marker - one that will give a confident South African nation plenty of food for thought. Another strong line-up on paper, arguably containing up to two thirds of what will be the starting Test side, will need to deliver where their team mates failed last time out.
It is time for the Lions to summon the 'x-factor' that we have heard about all week but saw so little of in their first game. The match will be played under the Ellis Park floodlights and not the blazing sun and having trained at altitude for over a week now the physical toll of playing 1500m+ above sea level should also be less taxing.
There can be no more excuses.
Golden Lions: Louis Ludik, Michael Killian, Jannie Boshoff, Doppies la Grange, Dusty Noble, André Pretorius, Jano Vermaak, Willem Alberts, Franco van der Merwe, Cobus Grobbelaar, Willem Stoltz, Brad Mockford, Gert Muller, Willie Wepener, Lawrence Sephaka
Replacements: Ethienne Reynecke, JC Janse Van Rensburg, Ernst Joubert, Todd Clever, Chris Jonck, Walter Venter, Earl Rose
British & Irish Lions: Rob Kearney (Leinster/Ireland), Tommy Bowe (Ospreys/Ireland), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster/Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Ugo Monye (Harlequins/England), Stephen Jones (Scarlets/Wales), Mike Phillips (Ospreys/Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland), David Wallace (Munster/Ireland), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers/England), Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Nathan Hines (Perpignan/Scotland), Phil Vickery (London Wasps/England), Lee Mears (Bath/England), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues/Wales)
Replacements: Ross Ford (Edinburgh/Scotland), Euan Murray (Northampton Saints/Scotland), Stephen Ferris (Ulster/Ireland), Andy Powell (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers/England), James Hook (Ospreys/Wales), Shane Williams (Ospreys/Wales)
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes, Marius Jonker
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