Adrian O’Farrell, the Supporters Club’s very own correspondent, turns his eye on the British & Irish Lions and wonders just which team is the real Lions and will they turn up for the first Test against South Africa?
After three matches on tour the British & Irish Lions remain unbeaten…just.
How they escaped Bloemfontein with a two-point victory only Wayne Barnes knows. In the frenetic endgame most commentators focused on the width of a post escape the Lions had from Louis Strydom’s drop goal attempt.
This, however, overlooks the fact that a penalty should have been given for offside against at least one and possibly two Lions who played the ball following the knock-on from Lee Byrne whilst in offside positions.
The fact that they escaped as they did leaves open the notion that the Lions of 2009 can come through the tour undefeated, though you would find it hard to find anyone on the planet that thinks that will come about.
Currently the Lions are 16/1 with bookmakers to win the Test series 3-0, although they are just 9/4 to win the series (as opposed to the Springboks at 1/3).
If we can dismiss the Rustenburg affair against the Royal XV as coming too early and before the Lions had acclimatised fully to the altitude, what are we to make of the diametrically opposed information given us by the matches against the Golden Lions and the Cheetahs?
The former would lead you to believe that the Lions are finding combinations, adjusting well to the new breakdown regime and firing accurately.
The latter would tell us the opposite is true, in particular that they are going to struggle with the breakdown.
As ever, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. What makes the Golden Lions performance liable to exaggeration is that this was a team that was on the point of going on strike the week before and had the most porous defence in the Super 14.
The first 20 minutes of the Cheetahs match was just as good, but then the Lions came a-cropper at the breakdown.
The tour took a sharp turn at the point of Stephen Ferris’ sin-binning for killing the ball. Thereafter the Cheetahs scored three tries to nil and really should have killed the Lions off.
But their success was principally down to the breakdown and it should be pointed out that the Lions didn’t have an openside on their team.
As I write, Ian McGeechan has just announced his team for Wednesday’s match against the Sharks in Durban. Already this looks like a pivotal match for some in terms of selection for the first Test.
Despite his late fumble on Saturday, Lee Byrne remains a shoo-in for the fullback berth, even if Rob Kearney has done little wrong.
Byrne just offers more going forward. On the wings, it looks like Shane Williams needs to produce a big game and in particular stop throwing speculative balls if he is to live up to his IRB Player of the Year billing.
He is selected on the right wing on Wednesday, but that would appear to be a lock for Tommy Bowe, surely the most-improved player in the northern Hemisphere this year, while Luke Fitzgerald gets his first start as a winger on tour.
While Ugo Monye has bagged a couple of tries and looked quick, Leigh Halfpenny has not been much involved.
However, there are doubts about Monye’s kicking game and a good performance from the young Irishman could see him in the shake-up.
The centre partnership of Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts is selected together again after tearing the Golden Lions apart and is clearly being teed up for a Test start. Cotton wool after this one I’d imagine.
With Mike Blair shooting himself in the foot in the Royal XV match, Mike Phillips looks set to start the first Test at scrum half.
Given that Stephen Jones had the opportunity last week to start with him, Ronan O’Gara gets his shot now.
O’Gara survived the Royal XV debacle intact but needs a big game on Wednesday if McGeechan is to be convinced to break up an established Wales partnership.
Up front, things are also beginning to take shape. With Paul O’Connell a starter there is only one second row place up for grabs.
Alun Wyn Jones got off to a good start last week and another good performance will see him stay ahead of Donncha O’Callaghan, who did well on Saturday but not enough to put his nose out front.
Jerry Flannery must be tearing his hair out watching as Lee Mears looks like landing the starting hooker spot.
Ross Ford hasn’t been sharp enough either with his darts or around the park. With the likely second row pairing on view on Wednesday, this is a key combination and Mears is getting the shot at the title.
The position at prop is also taking shape with Gethin Jenkins likely to see off Andrew Sheridan at loosehead and Phil Vickery’s vocal experience perhaps placing him a little ahead of Adam Jones and Euan Murray at tighthead.
Sheridan’s problem on Saturday was that he was going forward so fast that Murray couldn’t keep up and the result was a lot of wheeling going on and reset scrums.
Sheridan’s work, however, around the park doesn’t compare to Jenkins, who is no slouch in the tight either, so he is a likely starter if Wednesday goes well for him.
On the other side, Vickery may just hold off Adam Jones, but this one may go to the wire, though Murray went backwards in selection terms on Saturday.
If Jones and Jenkins come through well against a strong Sharks front row including Deon Carstens (released from the Springbokd squad) and Jannie du Plessis then they will be in the box seat.
In the back row, Andy Powell and Joe Worsley can be counted out of the reckoning at this point as starters.
It is extraordinary that Powell has not picked up on the offloading game that is second nature to most of the Welsh forwards, but faced with a lock, he’ll always opt for the hammer as opposed to the pick.
I have some sympathy for Worsley being picked at openside on Saturday, but in terms of the blindside he just doesn’t have the physical gifts that Ferris has, willing though he may be.
The selection of Tom Croft at blindside on Wednesday is probably Ferris’ last cause for concern, as the Leicester man looked sharp with ball in hand last week.
However, Ferris’ destructive tackling at no cost in pace would look to be the ideal package with which to confront Schalk Burger.
Jamie Heaslip looks set to start at number 8 as there are only two specialist eights on tour and the enforced experiment of playing David Wallace there last week wasn’t a success.
Apart from that, Heaslip’s form is excellent and he was a candidate for man-of-the-match against the Golden Lions.
Which leaves the battle for openside between Martyn Williams and Wallace. The change in the breakdown seems to allow the tackler more latitude to fight for the ball once they regain their feet (without necessarily having released the ball if the officiating to date is anything to go by).
This probably suits Williams a little more than Wallace, but there is precious little to choose between them at this point. So for Wallace, more than most, Wednesday is a crucial game.
It’s time to spring, or get off the bok.