So we are nearly halfway through the second week of the 2009 tour and the Lions have played three games. The first was against Royal XV, in which the Lions whimpered to a 37-25 win. Few players actually played well. There was plenty of talk about the poor performance of Keith Earls, and the lack of leadership from Paul O’Connell. While Earls had a poor attacking game, knocking on the ball four times in the first half, he did well in defense, putting in a nice dump tackle in the second half. I also disagree with the assessment of O’Connell. Fans and the media are expecting him to be this Martin Johnson type character, but he’s not (thank God) and should be allowed to lead the team in the way he sees fit.
Brian O’Driscoll led the Lions in Wednesday nights match against the Golden Lions, who are a Super 14 team, albeit a poor one. In contrast to the first game, the B&I Lions ran riot over the locals, running in 10 tries and winning 74-10. Several Irish players played particularly well, namely O’Driscoll, Ferris and Bowe. In fact, all three have played their way onto the test team in my opinion.
Hopes were high going into Saturdays match against the Free State Cheetahs (another Super 14 team). Pundits were talking of a corner being turned, after Wednesday’s strong performance. But, as pundits generally are, they were wrong. The first 20 minutes looked as though it would be another trouncing, but the Cheetahs put up a fight for the rest of the game, barely losing in the end 26-24. Had the drop goal in the closing minutes gone a few feet in the other direction it could have been slightly more embarrassing.
So with three games gone there is plenty to talk about. Its probably easier to learn things from the two poor performances, but we’ll leave that to Ian McGeechan & Co. A couple of places are certain for the test team, barring injury of course. Roberts and O’Driscoll look set to star in the centre. Byrne at full back and Bowe on the wing are also leading contenders for their respective positions. Mike Philips is looking certain at scrum-half, with Blair and Ellis playing crap. There is more of a battle at out half. Stephen Jones is generally considered the leader for the 10 jersey, having played in the whipping of the Golden Lions. But, O’Gara managed to play well when most around him didn’t against the Royal XV. Hook is definitely struggling to show form, giving an average performance against the Cheetahs. Which just leaves the 11 spot open, but for who? Shane Williams is running around like a headless chicken, so I’m thinking its an opening for Luke Fitzgerald. He’ll have to compete against Halfpenny, who has a great goal kicking ability on his side, and Monye, who has the other two well beaten for size.
The forwards have more ambiguity about them. Obviously O’Connell is certain at 5. His second row partner is less certain. George Hook has predicted Simon Shaw to take the 4 jersey. Most internet chatter is about Alun-Wyn Jones, but Nathan Hines hasn’t disappointed either. Which all means that Irishman O’Callaghan is unlikely to get a place. The front row has less debate I feel. Lee Mears looks likely for the hooker spot, having thrown well in the line out. A Welsh partnership at prop of Jenkins and Jones is looking good also, but its possible Euan Murray will get in. The back row is easier to talk about who won’t get in, than who will. Andy Powell is route 1 and nothing but, and hasn’t shown sufficient skill that will be necessary to play against the Springboks. Joe Worsely and Martyn Williams haven’t shone in comparison to the other contenders. My own feeling is towards a Wallace/Ferris/Heaslip partnership, but that’s the biased Irishman in me. Tom Croft is playing great, and has his fingertips on the No. 6 jersey.
The next game is tomorrow evening. The team that was named consists of most of the players I listed above, so its a very strong team. But so is the opposition. The Natal Sharks finished 6th in this years Super 14, and finished 3rd last year. The match is being played in Durban, which is at sea level so there is less concern about the altitude problems the players experienced against the Royal XV. Kick off is at 6.10pm Irish time, on Sky Sports 2.