x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Every Lion has chance at roaring

The Lions coach Ian McGeechan has fashioned a team of enormous forwards and pint-sized backs to face the Free State Cheetahs.

Sticking to his promise to give every player a run out in the first three games, the Lions coach Ian McGeechan has fashioned a team of enormous forwards and pint-sized backs to face the Free State Cheetahs today. This is the last chance to make an impression before the real sifting begins for the first Test on June 20.

First, the large Lions: Donncha O'Callaghan has his first game, alongside tour captain Paul O'Connell, behind Euan Murray and Andrew Sheridan, giving the props and second rows a combined weight of 456 kilos. As Scottish hooker Ross Ford, also making his first start and hardly a lightweight, put it: "We did have a quiet word in training about our size of this pack. We could really make things move."

Andy Powell, Stephen Ferris and Joe Worsley complete the compilation of beef. The smaller backs include wings Leigh Halfpenny at 1.78m, Shane Williams, 1.70m and outside centre Keith Earls, 1.78m. Halfpenny, aged 20, makes his debut after staying behind in Cardiff for treatment on his injured thigh, while the left wing Williams needs a big game to stay ahead of Ugo Monye, who was excellent against the Golden Lions in the 74-10 win on Wednesday, and Earls has a chance to make amends after a shaky first half in the opening game against the Highveld XV last Saturday.

McGeechan said that Earl's response both to dropping the ball several times and to a shoulder injury had been, "absolutely first-class". And on the matter of size: "They're all international players. Pound for pound they are extremely powerful." He stressed that internal pressure was perfect: "We have never been looking at preordained Test selections. On Wednesday a marker was laid down and now it's up to this latest selection to raise the bar again."

This notion of inner competition is important, since the Lions may not be sorely tested in these warm-up games, despite the Cheetahs coach, former Springbok hooker Naka Drotske, pledging to give the tourists "the hurry-up" in today's encounter. His team will be without their international squad players, wing Jongi Nokwe and flanker Juan Smith, although a lot of attention will be on another flanker, Heinrich Brussow, generally considered unlucky not to make the Springbok cut for this series.