x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Chance for dirt-trackers to shine for British & Irish Lions

For the vast majority of the side which faced Melbourne Rebels yesterday, there is no realistic route to the Test jersey, no matter how well they played.

Dan Lydiate got a chance to lead the Lions side against the Melbourne Rebels. David Rogers / Getty Images
Dan Lydiate got a chance to lead the Lions side against the Melbourne Rebels. David Rogers / Getty Images

It is an oft-quoted maxim of coaching: the players you have to worry most about keeping happy and motivated are those who are left in reserve.

"I can name the eight I did not select in 2003 just as easily as the starting XV," Sir Clive Woodward, the former England coach, wrote in his newspaper column before the first Test of this Lions series.

"The way they operated that week was magnificent and, in many ways, they were the heroes of that World Cup win."

You would hope he would be able to name them, but not everybody could. Being left on the shelf must be a bittersweet pill to swallow.

The same goes for the mainstays of the midweek team on a Lions tour - or the "dirt-trackers", as they are otherwise known.

They must be happy to be there and proud to call themselves Lions. But everyone wants a Test jersey.

For the vast majority of the side which faced Melbourne Rebels yesterday, there is no realistic route to the Test jersey, no matter how well they played. Even with two Test matches left – Saturday in Melbourne and the following week in Sydney – their chances remain slim.

Warren Gatland's first choice played well enough in the opening Test, in Brisbane, to suggest he was right to go with them, and it would be unwise to change a winning formula too much anyway.

There was a clear indicator of the fact this game was regarded as more a hindrance than a help by the fact Geoff Parling, who was originally named captain for the game, was withdrawn when lock Paul O'Connoll's injury ruled him out of the tour.

"It has been the pinnacle of my career to captain the Lions," his late replacement, Dan Lydiate, said in a television interview after the game. You bet he would swap it for a place in the Test XV, though.

Presumably Parling has been measured up for the Test jersey as a result so he was immediately withdrawn. If these guys were in any doubt as to the fact they have been also-rans - maybe that should be also-toureds - then that probably clinched it.

So how did they respond to what will be for the majority their last chance on tour? By playing with the sort of joie de vivre that has been rarely spotted so far in this series.

Sean Maitland's first-half try, for example, was one of the best Lions tries on tour to date. And they managed it with no input from George North, either, as the Welsh phenomenon was suited and booted watching from the stands instead.

By the end, the fixture had a Harlem Globetrotters feel to it when Simon Zebo threw an outlandish, exhibition pass with 10 minutes to go to set Manu Tuilagi free.

Even Brad Barrit, the defensive machine who is regarded as a one-dimensional attacker, was playing one handed flick passes near his own 22.

This was one last blow out on tour for the dirt-trackers, a forget-me-not to both their supporters and their hosts. And it was a Lions triumph.

UPS AND DOWNS

Ups

Manu Tuilagi, Lions
Truelly restricted in gametime on this tour due to a shoulder injury, but proved he is back to his best with a fine break for Sean Maitland’s first-half try. Warren Gatland would like a wrecking ball at No 12 in the Test side. Whether Tuilagi did enough to break the Jonathan Davies-Brian O’Driscoll partnership is debatable, though.

Sean O’Brien, Lions
The Irish openside flanker would be one of the first names on the Test teamsheet were it not for Sam Warburton. Despite his general excellence yesterday, not everything went well. A head-first tackle in the second half nearly left him with a concussion.

Gareth Delve, Rebels
Welsh dominance of this tour is bordering on excessive. The best Lions are Welsh. One of the best Englishman, Mako Vunipola, is more or less Welsh. And the leader of the plucky Rebels rearguard, their captain Delve, played 11 Tests for Wales before heading Down Under.

Down
Ryan Grant, Lions
The one-time Sharjah Wanderers player started so well, as the cornerstone of a massive early scrum. Then his teammates started to pass the ball to him in open space. Never a good thing for a loosehead prop who prefers to have his head down and shove.

pradley@thenational.ae

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