x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Lions are ready for a cat fight

The early days of the British & Irish Lions tour continue to be packed with, if not uncertainty, then a sense of exploring the unknown.

JOHANNESBURG // The early days of the British & Irish Lions tour continue to be packed with, if not uncertainty, then a sense of exploring the unknown. All bar three of the players from the starting line-up for the scrambled victory over the Royal XV in the opening fixture are rested for game two against the Golden Lions tonight. And the winger Tommy Bowe, centre Jamie Roberts and back row David Wallace are only playing because of injuries in the camp.

Everybody will have a run in the first three games, and if this slightly artificial mode of selection exposes the Lions, then so be it. Not until game four will there be any indication of what the coach Ian McGeechan has in mind for the three-Test series. Against this notion of experimentation stands the inclusion of Brian O'Driscoll, making his first appearance for the Lions since the first Test in Christchurch against the All Blacks in 2005.

O'Driscoll was then the tour captain and was destined to last only a few minutes before being upended and suffering a dislocated shoulder. Tonight he will be stand-in captain, but as one of the players of the season - leader of Grand Slam-winning Ireland and Heineken Cup-champions Leinster - he brings a certain reassurance to the rugby field. That midfield presence is reinforced by the inclusion of Roberts, forceful in the first game, and Stephen Jones, always a beacon of common sense for Wales. The core is solid and the Lions have had extra days to correct the mistakes of Rustenburg - losing the ball being the most obvious - and acclimatise to Johannesburg's thin air.

There is also the feeling that the Golden Lions might not quite be able to issue the stern challenge expected from a Super 14 franchise. They have just endured a miserable season, which ended with a review of their performance by Jake White, the coach of the Springbok team that won the 2007 World Cup, and the summary dismissal of their coach Eugene Eloff. The first task of his replacement, Hans Coetzee, was to head off a strike by the players in support of Eloff. This game between Lions comes with a dose of internal politics.

The Golden variety still pose a threat, especially through No 8 Willem Alberts and their lively scrum-half, Jano Vermaak. There are former Springboks in the side, fly-half Andre Pretorius and prop Lawrence Sephaka, and a current squad member, full-back Earl Rose on the bench. The tourists say they will continue to play with adventure, with forwards coach Warren Gatland saying that it is easier to go from expansion to caution for a Test match than the other way round. On the other hand, he and his team may be happy enough to take a victory by any means as the Lions continue to find their feet in South Africa.