Lions Test team will be untried
June 8, 2009
Ian McGeechan will not give his Lions Test side a dry run © Getty Images
British & Irish Lions head coach Ian McGeechan has admitted that his Test side to face South Africa will not be given the luxury of a trial run in one of their remaining group games. McGeechan has named a number of possible Test combinations for Wednesday's game against the Sharks in Durban, with centres Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts and the back-row of Tom Croft, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip all impressing so far on tour.
McGeechan is not prepared to divide his squad as Sir Clive Woodward did disastrously in 2005, preferring to leave the Test selection race to run its course over the tour matches, meaning that the nod may even be secured in the final pre-Test game against the Southern Kings on June 16.
"The main thing had been to get everyone playing in those first three games. Now, in the next three games it is to keep looking at some of the combinations," said McGeechan. "The only other way of doing it is you separate the teams and you say to half the squad 'You are not going to be involved in a Test match,' and I am not prepared to do that.
"We will try to get combinations together but, as a XV, it is unlikely they will play as a XV before the Test match. It's got to be about us and what we want to try and be come first Test day. There are some risks, I am aware of that, but I think what we get out of it as a squad far outweighs that.
"As far as I am concerned, we have to be fair to the players and have to construct everything we are doing that is using everybody. As coaches and players, we have to be very focused in our understanding of what we are trying to bring to that first Test match. Everyone has a role to play in that."
Four players who started Saturday's scratchy 26-24 victory over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein - skipper Paul O'Connell, fullback Lee Byrne, wing Shane Williams and Luke Fitzgerald - have been asked to back up against the Sharks while strong Test contenders including wings Tommy Bowe and Ugo Monye, plus fly-half Stephen Jones are expected to feature against Western Province in Cape Town on Saturday.
"If someone had said we would get to game four with three wins and everyone playing, I would probably have bitten their hand off," added McGeechan, who only has flanker Martyn Williams currently unavailable because of injury. "I want all the players to give me a selection headache. The fewer easy choices I have to make, the better.
"If you've got only six games to your first Test match, the chances are you might only play twice or three times. What is important is the time they are getting together on the training field. If you were saying to me now 'Pick a Test team,' I would be doing it on the back of one game that a player has played, in some cases. I don't think that is fair to the players. "I know we can't change the number of games going into the first Test. I just think it is more important that each player gets a genuine go - at least twice - to put his own game on the field."
Byrne has admitted that he is feeling the pressure as the issue of Test selection becomes a reality, with the fullback jersey still up for grabs between him and Rob Kearney. Byrne's strong performances in adverse conditions against the Cheetahs and Royal XV put him in pole position - but an uncharacteristic dropped high ball on Saturday blotted his copybook.
"There is big pressure to put down a marker for that Test jersey," he said. "This could be my last chance and I have to show what I can do. To be selected for the tour was great, but to claim a Test jersey would be another level.
"I don't want to have any regrets and look back on the tour and worry that I did not do everything I needed to do. The high ball went up and it just caught the end of my fingers. Everyone makes mistakes and I just have to put it to the back of my mind. Thankfully, nothing came of it and we won the game. But it would have been a different story if we lost the match."