In naming Phil Vickery captain of the British & Irish Lions team that will take on Western Province at Newlands in their fifth tour match on Saturday, coach Ian McGeechan said the ‘front door’ is wide still open for those hoping to secure Test spots.
Announcing the team at a media gathering in Cape Town on Friday morning, McGeechan confirmed an entirely different starting XV from the one which did battle against the Sharks during their mid-week encounter, writes Jan de Koning of Rugby365.
Not one of the players who started in the 39-3 demolition of the Sharks will be in the run-on XV at Newlands.
The B&I Lions mentor said the team selection is part of their plan to see all players involved in the tour squad get “at least two full matches” prior to the first Test against the Springboks next Saturday, June 20.
Martyn Williams comes into the starting XV, following his recovery from a shoulder knock and Riki Flutey gets his first starting role after proving his fitness off the bench against the Sharks.
On the selection of Vickery as captain, the third player in five matches to lead the tourists, McGeechan said Vickery is an experienced leader who has captained England and was a B&I Lion in 2001 in Australia and a “very proud” Lion at that.
“He deserves that honour of leading the side out,” McGeechan said.
However, it is the races for places in the Test team that was foremost in the minds of most pundits, with the coach making it clear that all XV starting spots are still “open” ahead of the first Test of the three-match series.
“As far as the coaches are concerned everybody are still playing for Test places ahead of next week,” he said.
He dismissed the notion that his best selection has started to be formed in the back of his mind, even though he is publicly stating that the selection door remains open.
“We can’t [starting settling on a Test team], because some players are only playing in their second game and it is very difficult,” McGeechgan said, adding: “I have said all along we’ve got to give every player an opportunity to show what he can do in a Lions jersey and it will take the [first] six game.
“This is the shortest build-up we have for a Lions tour before a Test series and we have to use every game,” he said of the remaining fixtures before the opening international – against WP on Saturday and the Southern Kings on Tuesday.
He also spoke about “being fair” to every player.
He admitted that this may leave his Test team short of “match practice” as a unit, but McGeechan spoke of the need to find the balance between given the players every chance to prove their worth and gelling the team.
“We have to be open-minded about what we see on the field,” he said.
“It would be a far greater risk not giving every player an opportunity, than the risk of not playing together as a team. I would be letting them [the players] down and I’m not prepared to do that. This has been the challenge from day one and we knew that,” McGeechan said, adding that even the players in Tuesday’s squad will have an opportunity to play a part in the Test.
He said he would be looking for “big performances” from the players against WP and the Kings, just like some players pout their hands up against the Sharks in mid-week.
“I don’t want any easy decisions next week, when naming the Test team,” the Lions coach said.
“I want the players to challenge [for Test places] and I want to sit down and have some really big calls to make, because the players are challenging us as coaches.”
He also spoke of the “delight” of having reached Cape Town for the final Saturday provincial match prior to the Test series with an unbeaten record.
“Team morale is high and each team that takes the field is determined to maintain the momentum and to fight for an individual Test place,” manager Gerald Davies said.
McGeechan said he was pleased with the way the squad remained focussed on the next match and did not get too excited about the big win over the Sharks.
“The squad is very close as a group of players, but now there is now a competitive edge developing as we approach the Test series. That is how it should be.”
British & Irish Lions: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Harry Ellis, 8 Andy Powell, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Joe Worsley, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 Phil Vickery (captain), 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Andrew Sheridan
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Euan Murray, 18 Simon Shaw, 19 Tom Croft, 20 Mike Blair, 21 James Hook, 22 Gordon D’Arcy
Date: Saturday, June 13
Venue: Newlands, Cape Town
Kick-off: 15.00 (13.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Afternoon clouds, with possible showers later in the day. High 18°C, low 15°C
Referee: Mark Lawrence
Assistant referee: Wayne Barnes (England), Cobus Wessels
TMO: Shaun Veldsman