During the gloomy days of the 1990s, it was often said of English cricketers that the more time they spent on the sidelines, the more their importance to the team grew. The inference was that if they were out of the side, they would not be embarrassing themselves on the field. Their stock would stay the same, while that of those in their place plummeted.
A similar scenario greeted the start of the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa at the weekend. They were nearly beaten by a side of green young tyros who were supposed to be cannon fodder for the best players from the four Home Unions. The home following were rightly unimpressed by their first glimpse of the latest batch of Lions. "These young players are starting to realise they are not playing against super-men," said the TV commentator for the Royal XV match. Quite.
Jake White, the well-regarded coach who made way for Peter de Villiers to take control of the Springboks, has predicted problems for the Lions up front in the forthcoming Test series. He did add the caveat that things may be different when the contingent of Leinster and Leicester players, who were rested following their Heineken Cup final exertions the previous week, are called in. Ian McGeechan, the Lions head coach, has bolstered the side for tomorrow's meeting with the Golden Lions with a clutch of those players.
Brian O'Driscoll, the Leinster centre, will captain the side, while Jamie Heaslip has been elevated from the replacements bench to the starting No8 role. According to another of his Leinster's club-mates, Malcolm O'Kelly, the giant lock who was a Lions tourist in 2001 and 2005, Heaslip could give the Lions some of the go-forward they lacked in their opener. "[The Lions series] will be a huge challenge for him," said O'Kelly. "He has the ability to up his performance to play mistake-free rugby, and have positive moments running with the ball and breaking the gain-line.
"Against South Africa, you need good ball-carriers. It will be key for him that he gets the ball into his hands. "He gets through a lot of unseen work, but I think the management will have to make sure they get the ball into his hands because he is a very, very good runner." firstname.lastname@example.org O'Kelly will be hosting a live screening of the first Lions Test, at Zinc, at the Crowne Plaza in Dubai. Tickets cost Dh125 and can be purchased from email@example.com