Pressure on Lions to raise their game
Graham Jenkins in Cape Town
June 11, 2009
Another assured performance from fly-half Stephen Jones will see him lay claim to the No.10 jersey for the opening Test © Getty Images
The Lions go into battle against Western Province in Cape Town on Saturday afternoon with the battle for Test places intensifying.
Time is running out for players to stake a claim for a place in the side that will face the Springboks in Durban on June 20 and for this latest Lions selection it is surely a case of now or never.
Standing in their way is their toughest test of the tour so far in the form of the region's Currie Cup side - and not the Super 14 franchise that also calls Newlands home - the Stormers. But take nothing from that as this side is steeped in history including a bruising encounter with the Lions in 1997.
Head coach Ian McGeechan insists that the Test selection door will remain open until after the last warm-up game against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday and that lure and the healthy competition within the squad should ensure another strong showing from the tourists.
Former England skipper Phil Vickery becomes the third different player to lead the Lions following in the footsteps of tour captain Paul O'Connell and fellow Lions veteran Brian O'Driscoll. The reliable Wasps prop has been tipped for a Test berth and another strong performance should see him close in on the No.3 shirt - however he will need to ensure his contribution lasts longer than the seven minutes he played on Wednesday night when his indiscipline got the better of him.
Amongst those also in line for a Test start are wingers Ugo Monye and Tommy Bowe who have enjoyed a rich run of form and can expect to line up against South Africa - the shirts are theirs to lose. Fly-half Stephen Jones is another that looks to be winning his own positional battle while loose-head prop Andrew Sheridan is offered another chance to display his scrummaging prowess before taking on the Springboks' front row at Kings Park.
The rest of the side are under pressure to produce a big performance and force their way into the reckoning. Centre Riki Flutey makes his first start after a miraculous recovery from injury but he and the likes of openside Martyn Williams, centre Keith Earls, blindside Joe Worsley and No.8 Andy Powell must offer something special if they are to give McGeechan a selection headache come Tuesday night.
Williams in particular has the chance to restore some respect at the breakdown and prove his own fitness after being troubled by a shoulder injury. The Lions performance at the breakdown was much-improved against the Sharks in Durban last time out but a significant contribution from the Cardiff Blues stalwart would see him leap into contention.
This side will be relatively fresh with no starters backing up from the side's fourth successive victory in mid-week but they will be taking nothing for granted against a settled Western Province side loaded with talent including five Springboks.
Leading the side is No.8 Luke Watson, who has courted controversy off the field in the past with his views on the Springboks, but remains a formidable threat on it. He will pack down alongside Duane Vermeulen at blindside and Pieter Louw on the openside and together they will provide the Lions with a strong test in an area of perceived weakness.
Inside centre Peter Grant is the latest player to face the Lions with a point to prove to Springboks coach Peter de Villiers having been passed over in his latest squad despite featuring in the warm-up clash against the Namibia XV.
The promising Morgan Newman, who has represented South Africa through the age-groups, was another to feature in that game, and will partner Grant in the centres - he is also one of those players set to take on the Lions twice on this tour as part of the Emerging Springboks squad that will play host to the tourists in Cape Town on June 23.
The home side also pose a considerable threat out wide in the form of wingers Gcobani Bobo and Tonderai Chavhanga but they will struggle to unlock whathas been a miserly and well-organised Lions defence. Similarly up front, the hosts appear to lack the quality to unsettle the Lions in the set-piece with pressure on Springboks international hooker Tiaan Liebenberg and lock Anton van Zyl to galvanise the tight five.
They will no doubt have taken note of the Lions faltering display at the breakdown in recent weeks and to a certain extent at the scrum and if nothing else will surely adopt a physical approach in the hope of revealing a few more cracks in the Lions' armour.
Much has been made of the 'once in a lifetime' opportunity for the home-grown players to make their mark on such a high-profile stage but in fact it is the Lions that have thrived in this environment while their respective hosts have largely failed to rise to the challenge - such is the competitive nature within this current crop of Lions.
McGeechan's policy is commendable, albeit a little risky, but final judgement on that matter will be reserved until the Test series is decided. The pressure is on this latest line-up to deliver and it will take something exceptional from some of these players, either in terms of performance or injuries to others, for them to force their way into the reckoning.
The realistic chance of a Test place should inspire the Lions to their fifth successive victory but they will welcome another stern test of their credentials. However, it will be the manner of that victory that will define the level of momentum they take into the most important week of the tour.
Western Province: Joe Pietersen, Tonderai Chavhanga, Morgan Newman, Peter Grant, Gcobani Bobo, Willem de Waal, Dewald Duvenhage, Luke Watson (c), Duane Vermeulen, Pieter Louw, Anton van Zyl, Martin Muller, Brok Harris, Tiaan Liebenberg, Wicus Blaauw.
Replacements: Hanyani Shimange, JD Moller, De Kock Steenkamp, Zandre Jordaan, Conrad Hoffmann, JJ Engelbrecht, Gio Aplon
British & Irish Lions: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Riki Flutey, Ugo Monye, Stephen Jones, Harry Ellis, Andrew Sheridan, Matthew Rees, Phil Vickery (captain), Donncha O'Callaghan, Nathan Hines, Joe Worsley, Martyn Williams, Andy Powell
Replacements: Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Simon Shaw, Tom Croft, Mike Blair, James Hook, Gordon D'Arcy
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)
Assistant referees: W Barnes (England), C Wessels (South Africa)
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Top 14, Super Rugby and the Aviva Premiership with fireworks and monsters both featuring
Firdose Moonda looks at the moves towards greater integration within South African rugby ... and what the future holds
It is 100 years this week since the last international match played in Europe before the outbreak of World War One. Rewind remembers the fixture's longest-living survivor
Martin Gillingham looks ahead to what he believes is the most remarkable ever climax to the league phase of the Top 14