Lions Rugby – Conor Ward takes a look at the Irish Lions on Tour to South Africa.
CONOR WARD takes a look at the Irish touring contingent and their chances of making the side to face the might of the South African when the Test series kicks off on Saturday week
The Lions have been in South Africa for just over a fortnight, but on such a short tour management will soon be looking to piece together their starting Test side. And it’s been a case of varying fortunes for the Irish boys thus far. So without further ado, let’s take a look at their chances at this stage of the tour…
Tommy Bowe – A standout performer on tour so far. His enormous impact in the opening two games yielded three tries, which places the Ospreys man in a very strong position for Test selection at this stage. Bowe is also a popular figure who finds himself in the midst of international as well as club colleagues on this trip. With Shane Williams failing badly to find his form, the momentum is with Bowe and he will be raring to go against the Boks.
Gordon D’Arcy – Despite some damage to his reputation at the tail-end of the 2005 tour (some so-called experts proclaimed that D’Arcy would never wear a Lions jersey again), McGeechan and co have seen fit to call on his services to enhance their midfield options. Forget the rumour and idle gossip – a player of D’Arcy’s calibre belongs on a Lions tour. That said, D’Arcy has too much ground to make up to get in contention for a Test place having belatedly joined the party. Jamie Roberts, with one star turn after another, should have the inside centre berth nailed down now.
Keith Earls – The Limerick youngster’s tour got off to the worst possible start as he endured a torrid opening period against the Royal XV, apparently suffering from a bad case of nerves. Against that backdrop, his classy early try against the Cheetahs on Saturday was all the sweeter. That score was a good demonstration of Earls’ fine footwork. Even with all his talent though, it’s difficult to see a player of such limited international experience playing anything more than a backup role in a physically grueling test series.
Luke Fitzgerald – Was done no favours by his selection out of position at inside centre in an overall lightweight backline which struggled against the Cheetahs. At least he survived the game competently enough and, to their credit, management gave Fitzgerald his head on the wing against the Sharks in Durban. The Leinster livewire didn’t disappoint as he struck for a try in a decent all round display. He has the requisite quality for the Tests and is now knocking on the door.
Rob Kearney – With his form little more than average going back as far as the Six Nations, Kearney doesn’t make a strong case for selection ahead of consistently excellent Welsh full-back Lee Byrne. Kearney didn’t feature against the Sharks, as another classy display from Byrne now means he’s indispensable in the plans for Saturday week. Kearney will need to pick up his form and be ready to rumble if called upon later in the series.
Brian O’Driscoll – All-time great O’Driscoll had to be virtually nailed on for the number 13 Test jersey ever before a ball was kicked in anger on tour. Now vastly experienced – a Grand Slam winning captain and playing on his third Lions tour – O’Driscoll is worth his weight in gold. Although he’s not the captain, O’Driscoll is arguably the most important and influential member in the squad. For my money, he’s still the best player in the world at thirty. His partnership with Jamie Roberts was again top class against the Sharks. Together, they carry much of the Lions hopes on their shoulders. O’Driscoll’s attacking prowess, defensive doggedness and cool head will all be needed if the Lions are to somehow upset the odds.
Ronan O’Gara – Kicked his goals and notched a nice try in the opening game, but that was not enough to mask a poor team performance. O’Gara display against the Sharks was more assured as he released his backs well at times and showed the kind of variation that comes with a player of his experience. Overall, the Munsterman has kicked with authority in his two outings. Stephen Jones also stepped up to the plate against the Golden Lions however. As things stand, it’s a very tight call between the two.
Jamie Heaslip – Rivalled only by Sergio Parisse as the best number 8 in the Six Nations, and having gone on to play a crucial role in Leinster’s Heineken Cup triumph, Heaslip was always the prime contender for the Test spot. Andy Powell’s erratic display against the Cheetahs at the weekend has done nothing to upset that either. Heaslip was heavily involved and very impressive against the Cheetahs, capping the display with a late burst over the whitewash. McGeechan and co will surely now bank on his talents against the Boks, though they will provide the most arduous challenge of his career.
Donncha O’Callaghan – Always gives huge work-rate and total commitment, but his performance against the Cheetahs was hardly of the head-turning variety. Although he nailed down a test place in New Zealand four years ago, the Lions would surely be better served by the more rounded skills of Alun-Wyn Jones this time around, and O’Callaghan would in fact be doing well even to make the bench.
Paul O’Connell (Captain) – Obviously guaranteed to start, but the Lions want to be careful about placing too much faith in his ability to damage the Boks up front. I don’t recall the occasion when he stood out and dominated against a full-strength Southern Hemisphere pack. Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha are actually both bigger men, they have vast experience, and certainly won’t be living in O’Connell’s shadow. He will bring leadership and intelligence, but the reality is that the Lions forwards are hugely up against it.
David Wallace – After a slow start on tour, Wallace staked his claim properly against the Sharks with a huge all-action display in which he repeatedly made ground for his side. Easily talented enough to mix it in the Test match cauldron, his ball-carrying attributes will be a big asset to the Lions. With the might of Smith, Burger and Spies lying in wait, the Lions will need Wallace to take the fight to them. One of only a few players in the squad who could strike some fear into the Boks defence, it would be hard to see McGeechan overlooking him now.
A word on Stephen Ferris: His injury is just an awful awful shame, not just for himself but for the squad as a whole. Ferris was having a fabulous tour until he was agonizingly cut down in the middle of a great run. His brutish physical strength and searing pace off the mark made him the standout contender for the number 6 jersey, but now we can only think of what might have been. Let’s wish him the best in his recovery and hope to see him back in that kind of form next season.