Pressure on Lions to put it all together
John Taylor in Durban
June 18, 2009
Lions head coach Ian McGeechan finds reason to smile after naming his side for the 1st Test against the Springboks © Getty Images
Peter De Villiers Bryan Habana Gethin Jenkins Ian McGeechan Victor Matfield Brian O'Driscoll Andrew Sheridan John Smit Juan Smith David Wallace Martyn Williams
Ian McGeechan has been true to his word and has selected on form so there are no surprises in the Lions team for the first Test.
In the end it must have been a fairly straightforward selection meeting because injuries have either taken players out of contention or limited their chances to impress.
The starting XV very nearly picked itself despite McGeechan saying, 'there were some very difficult calls to make.' I would guess 12 or 13 names went down on the sheet without too much discussion with only left wing and openside flanker needing a debate.
Nobody can feel hard done by. Shane Williams was given every chance to claim the left wing spot but, while he has continued to struggle, Ugo Monye has grown in assurance with every game. He is quick and powerfully direct in his running, offering a considerable physical presence which is always useful against the Springboks. He also seems to be a quick learner.
When he first played for England he was defensively naïve and was very easily wrong-footed (a weakness that could be fatal against Brian Habana - the most potent attacker in world rugby at the moment) but now he is far better at shepherding his man into the right position to make the tackle easier. He is also much more assured under the high ball.
The issue is not so clear cut at No. 7. Martyn Williams might just have been in front of David Wallace before his shoulder injury but it happened at the wrong time, Wallace took his chance, and that is what Lions tours are all about. In his first game back, against Western Province, Williams was at his best - the little tapped pass to create space on the right which Tommy Bowe exploited brilliantly for his try was a gem and his own try was a typically intuitive piece of finishing - but Wallace has also been on top of his game and deserves the nod.
I'm pleased to see they have gone for Williams on the bench even though he covers only one position because he offers something slightly different and can open up defences close to the scrum better than anybody else in the game. I still see him playing a significant role in the series.
There might have also been a temptation to play Andrew Sheridan because of his sheer power in the scrums but he offers little else. How does such a power house fall over so easily? - He appears top heavy.
Gethin Jenkins is now a very good loose-head. He might just lose out to Sheridan in scrum power but not by much and he is much busier in attack and defence.
Any temptation to beef up the pack further by including Ross Ford at hooker disappeared when he proved he still cannot throw straight - something I find quite indefensible when he can practise every day - and Lee Mears, as ever, looks skilful and neat in everything he does. Nobody knows why Tom Croft was not an original selection but McGeechan and his selection panel must be very grateful that fate gave them a second bite at the cherry. Stephen Ferris would have been at No. 6 had he not been injured but Croft should always have been the back-up.
Assuming that Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll are fully fit - it seems incredible that it is only just over a week ago that we last saw them - McGeechan will be fairly content with the side he has been able to select.
The only option he would have wanted was to be able to have James Hook on the bench. It is not just that he covers fly-half and centre whilst Ronan O'Gara is an out and out No.10, he also offers something slightly different.
Stephen Jones and O'Gara are very orthodox modern fly-halves. Jones gets the nod in front of O'Gara because his tackling is better but otherwise they are very similar. Hook is more elusive and more attack minded and can change the shape of the game when he comes on which could be important if the Lions need to go on the attack in the final quarter.
Deep down McGeechan must be seething about the hit that put Hook out of the First Test - the good news is that they are now confident he will be available for Pretoria - but he knew better than to make it a big issue at the post match press conference in Port Elizabeth.
He knows better than anybody that the Lions have had an easy run and that those sorts of hits are only to be expected in the run-up to the Test series which was why he was determined to wrap O'Driscoll and Roberts in mothballs. The phoney war is now definitely over.
'When we've got the little things right on this tour we've looked a very good side,' said McGeechan when the team was announced. He's right - the problem is that they have only done that in patches and now he has to concentrate all his resources on raising the overall level of performance.
If they win the first Test anything is possible - if they lose it they are looking into the abyss.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com
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
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September