British & Irish Lions captain Paul O’Connell gave the thumbs up to Ian McGeechan’s team selection for the first Test against South Africa, declaring that the tourists have ‘fabulous players in every position.’
With six tour wins out of six, a relatively clean bill of health and ever increasing supporter numbers, the British & Irish Lions head into Saturday’s first Test against South Africa with a lot of things going for them.
Sure, some of those victories have been unimpressive and by tight margins and the withdrawals – by injury or otherwise – of Tomas O’Leary, Tom Shanklin, Alan Quinlan, Jerry Flannery, Leigh Halfpenny, Stephen Ferris, Ryan Jones and most recently Euan Murray have not helped.
But the touring party is in good fettle in both body and mind as they look forward to challenging the Springboks in their own backyard.
Asked if he believes his side can blast out of the blocks and take victory in the Test opener in Durban, Lions captain Paul O’Connell was in little doubt.
“I definitely think we’ve enough shots in our locker to do it, absolutely,” said the Limerick man, speaking at Wednesday’s team announcement press conference.
“We are a very talented side, we know how we want to play. It’s a question of going out and doing it.
“I think once you put the Test team together, I think a different mindset comes in because up to that, there’s a small bit of playing for places, there’s a small bit of getting used to one another.
“But once the Test team is together, something else begins to take shape and I think that happened a little bit at training this morning.
“We’ve fabulous players in every position, great pace in the back row, great pace in the back-line, a very fit front five, a very good scrumaging front five.
“So there’s no doubt we’re going to need things to go our way a little bit – like any Lions tour does – but if we put together an 80-minute performance on Saturday there’s no doubt we can win.”
Ian McGeechan and the Lions management have selected along expected lines for Saturday’s game, with most of the debate beforehand focusing on the make-up of the back row.
David Wallace, Ireland’s long-serving number 7, has beaten off the challenge from Wales’ Martyn Williams to take the openside slot, while the highly-rated Tom Croft, the man called up for the suspended Quinlan, will give the Lions an added lineout option at number 6.
Elsewhere, some notable individual battles have gone in favour of full-back Lee Byrne, out-half Stephen Jones, lock Alun Wyn Jones and number 8 Jamie Heaslip.
A Grand Slam and Heineken Cup winner this season, Heaslip is one of 10 Lions Test debutants in the starting line-up.
Brian O’Driscoll, Stephen Jones, O’Connell, Phil Vickery and Gethin Jenkins are the only players who have experienced playing Test rugby in the famous red shirt before.
Interestingly, Heaslip and his Ireland team-mates Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney are the only players in the squad who have never faced South Africa before at senior level.
The most notable absentees from the Lions’ matchday 22 are winger Shane Williams, the 2008 IRB Player of the year, and strong-as-an-ox England prop Andrew Sheridan.
Pressed about how the players left out of the squad took the news, O’Connell said their reaction has been very positive and that the support of the players who miss out on Test selection will be very important over the coming days and weeks.
“I think it is kind of something that ‘Geech’ has made everyone aware of from day one, that the tour hinges on moments like this – you know injury, when you reach a certain stage in the tour and Test selection.
“And not only how the Test players react to being selected, it’s how the other guys react to not being selected is generally what makes the atmosphere of the tour because really its only starting now.
“We are a long way into the tour but really this is the big start to it and the positivity we have, the atmosphere we have in the squad, you know that’s what’s going to carry us through the next three weeks.
“I think the way everyone has reacted to the selection probably has a lot to do with the fact that Geech has probably been warning us about this moment and the tour has been good so far.”
Improving their accuracy at the breakdown is something that has been on the Lions’ minds over the first part of the tour, with last Tuesday’s tour win over the Southern Kings again showing up the tourists’ struggles to get quick ball and hold onto it.
O’Connell said: “We have been very good at training – we have trained very well – and we have got to bring that out onto the pitch.
“It’s happened at times throughout the tour but probably not enough and hopefully we can do that on Saturday.
“The breakdown obviously is going to be a very important part to the game as well and if we can secure quick ball we have a very good back-line and a good back row that can exploit that.”
Asked about the players’ input into the game-plan for Saturday, the Munster and Ireland lock said they had spoken on the training pitch earlier about ‘being aware of how we want to play and doing it.’
“I think for four weeks we have been very aware of how we want to play and we haven’t always completed it,” he said.
“When we have, we have been good, we have been successful with it and it is just a question of getting to that level and I think Stephen (Jones) has drilled it in today, Drico (Brian O’Driscoll) has, I have and we had a good session this morning.”
Looking forward to leading the side out on Saturday, O’Connell expects that emotions will run high in the dressing room as he passes on his final words of motivation.
“It’s something we’ve spoken about quite a bit throughout the tour, how special it is to be a Lion.
“We’re proud of where we come from, the clubs and countries we play for, but for us, this is the greatest jersey we can pull on.
“I imagine (the dressing room) will be a very good place to be in and an emotional place to be in before the game.”