Lions’ coach Ian McGeechan has gotten his team selection spot on for Wednesday’s clash with the Sharks. The Scot, aware that this will be the toughest match to date and that he needs to start finalising his starting test XV, has mixed experienced partnerships with potential Test pairings.
Perhaps the most significant selection was at half-back. Ronan O’ Gara will feel he’s been out of action for too long having watched from the sideline since the Lions opening match with the Royal XV. The Cork man had to sit and watch, as both Jones and Hook put in good shifts in the no. 10 shirt against the Golden Lions and Cheetahs respectively. O’Gara was solid as opposed to outstanding in a scrappy first match but when the game needed direction late on he kicked the corners well. He also slotted every kick at goal and to round off went over for a try. The Irish fly half can therefore be relatively happy with his contribution thus far, especially as he had to endure the abysmal supply of Ben Blair who was totally out played by his opposite number on the day.
With Mike Philips favourite to start the first Test at scrum half, it would have been easy for Mcgeechan to select Jones at 10 again for Wednesday to get the pair accustomed to playing alongside Roberts and O’Driscoll who are almost guaranteed starting place. Instead Geech has offered ROG a fair chance to prove his mettle in a Lions jersey, the rest is up to the player himself.
Much has been made of O’ Connell’s selection for 2 matches in 4 days but the rationale is clear. Alun Wyn Jones is his likely partner for the first test so the two need to gel. Also the big lock has so far had to performwith a struggling weekend pack, by putting him in with the stronger team O’ Connell finally has a chance to prove the impact he can have with a strong pack around him.
One can’t help but feel Shane Williams has been handed his last chance to reclaim some sort of form. With no sign of his jinking runs and having gifted the Cheetahs a try on Saturday the Ospreys man will need to play the game of his life to nail down a test shirt. On the opposite wing Luke Fitzgerald gets his first real match of the tour. It was unfair to play him at inside centre on Saturday when his experience is at 11, 13 and 15. Now the Dubliner has the opportunity to make those inside runs he loves and find space to put his blistering acceleration on show.
Loose-head prop and blindside Flanker are two positions with the most competition. In choosing a loose-head McGeechan will either opt for the ferocious scrummaging of Sheridan or the excellent all-round work rate of Jenkins. The Welshman is the better player on paper but with the Springboks lacking an out-and-out tight-head the Lions may target the scrum. On Wednesday Jenkins gets to put his hand up.
Despite some outstanding play from Stephen Ferris in both the Golden Lions and Cheetahs matches Tom Croft is probably edging the no.6 slot. Consider the experience of Joe Worsleyand the selection becomes a real headache. If Croft mixes his pace in the loose with the same dogged determination in the tight he showed against the Golden Lions he could get the nod.
Outside of these positions it appears that a solid showing from Byrne, Heaslip, and Mears should be enough to guarantee Test places but the sharks are a serious challenge. If the Super 14 side play at the intensity their capable of we may see players who looked composed during last Wednesday’s rout suddenly feel the pressure of a Lions tour match. One things for certain, Wednesday night will go along way towards deciding who makes the Test XV for June 20th.