Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Exam passed, now Lions face real Test

Western Province 23 British & Irish Lions 26

Tommy Bowe strengthened his claim for a starting place in the Lions Test squad with a powerful performance against Western Province

It's a question of perspective. Yes, James Hook did wonderfully well to knock over the winning penalty from 48 metres and, yes, it was important to keep the winning run going for confidence purposes a week before the first Test in Durban.

But, this was not about the result — it was a game whose primary purpose was to separate wheat from chaff, a chance to assess the contenders for the few remaining slots in the Test team that will be selected by head coach Ian McGeechan and his advisers after tomorrow's clash with the Southern Kings.

Perhaps it was the individual prerogatives that damaged collective cohesion, perhaps it was the fact that the Lions do not want to reveal their ‘A’ game ahead of the Test series, and perhaps — and this was what McGeechan latched onto afterwards — it was the awkward conditions, where the swirling wind and persistent rain made it feel more like Coonagh than Cape Town.

This was a team of internationals against an understrength provincial outfit, yet if Western Province had claimed a famous scalp in Newlands, few could have quibbled.

Though out-powered in most areas, the South Africans played with greater focus and ambition and what, on paper, should have been a comfortable victory for the tourists became a tough struggle with a nervy ending.

At least it made for a good atmosphere — the first of the tour. The attendance was still far short of capacity (35,412 out of 51,900) but both sets of supporters got behind their team and there was plenty of drama to entertain them.

So what did we learn about the selection for Saturday? Well, from an Irish perspective, it was a good day at the office even for two men who were not required to clock in.

Ronan O'Gara has played well in his two outings and one wonders what was going through the Munster out-half's head as he watched his main rival Stephen Jones struggle to put any control on the game. The chief concern surrounding O'Gara's candidacy for the Test No 10 jersey is his tackling, with the British media consistently suggesting that the Cork man would constitute a major risk against the rampaging Springbok back-row. However, this ignores the hard work O'Gara has put in on this area of his game and, though he was persistently targeted by the Sharks last Wednesday, he never buckled.

Jones and O'Gara share a mutual respect and have a good working relationship, but the Welshman's unconvincing display was good news for the 32-year-old Irish pivot.

Luke Fitzgerald was also in the stand watching his competition for the left-wing role, Ugo Monye, make his case. The Harlequins winger took his try well but it was a score born out of the excellent approach play of Tommy Bowe and Monye did not make any significant inroads elsewhere in attack. More relevant for the selectors was his performance on the back foot. Western Province plugged his wing throughout and while Monye came through without major mishap, he never looked comfortable.

There will be a lot of kicking in Durban next weekend and, on this evidence, Fitzgerald looks better equipped to deal with the barrage. Rob Kearney had a very assured performance at full-back, dealing expertly with the difficult wind and using his left foot to good effect. He was not afforded the chance to hurt the home side on the hoof but he has put it up to Lee Byrne — although the Welshman is still favourite to hold on.

On the right wing, Tommy Bowe produced another in a long line of memorable displays this season. He took his try brilliantly and will be one of the first names McGeechan jots down on his pad when the Test team is selected tomorrow evening.

Keith Earls had his moments but was not able to make a meaningful impact but Donncha O'Callaghan had a very productive afternoon. It was significant that it was Nathan Hines and not |O’Callaghan who was substituted for Simon Shaw and if McGeechan feels that Alun-Wyn Jones is too much of an indulgence against the brute force of Bakkies Botha, O'Callaghan has a good shout at slipping into a familiar role alongside Paul O'Connell.

Andrew Sheridan needed a monster game to get in ahead of Gethin Jenkins but, while he was part of a powerful scrummaging effort, he did not do enough overall. Stand-in captain Phil Vickery had a decent outing although Euan Murray wreaked significant havoc on the Western Province scrum when he came on.

No 8 Andy Powell earned rave reviews in some quarters for his strong, hard running but while it warmed up the Lions fans, the charge-and-drop Cardiff man threw cold water on Lions' attacking ambition with poor link play.

Martyn Williams' link play was far more impressive but his surge for selection may have arrived too late to threaten David Wallace while Joe Worsley toiled away to little effect.

Tom Croft will probably be handed the blindside jersey but you suspect Stephen Ferris' physicality will be keenly missed.

Jones managed one conversion and two penalties to go with the tries for Bowe, Monye and Williams while the excellent Willem De Waal was Western Province's main points-gatherer with four penalties and a drop-goal adding to an excellent try for Joe Pietersen, who also bagged a drop-goal.

But it was Hook who claimed the decisive score to keep the tour on track. We will soon discover the names of them who McGeechan thinks are driving the train and those he views as passengers.

How the Irish fared

Rob Kearney: Quality display until he hobbled off with a dead leg. Despite the treacherous wind, caught everything that came his way, repeatedly sent the ball spiralling deep into opposition territory and made the tackles he had to. Needed opportunities to stretch his legs in attack.

Tommy Bowe: A cult figure among supporters, and not just the Irish ones, Bowe is the star of this tour. Had very little to do, but the Monaghan man still got man of the match, courtesy of a try that he had no right to score and a wonderful contribution for Ugo Monye’s try. Has shipped some heavy criticism during his career and must be secretly revelling in the discomfiture of those that wrote him off.

Keith Earls: The game largely passed the centres by and Earls had no opportunity to break out. Contributed positively on several occasions and has now put down two solid displays to banish the memory of his difficult opener.

Donncha O’Callaghan: A very good day for the Corkman. His line-out stats after two games are extremely impressive and he managed to steal a Western Province throw as well as providing a steady stream of possession on the Lions ball. Had a couple of charges and was his usual industrious self elsewhere and with Nathan Hines anonymous, O’Callaghan now deserves to be in the frame for a Test slot.

Gordon D’Arcy: A major surprise when he didn’t get a decent run off the bench, looks to be totally out of the selectors’ reckoning despite the fact that he is potentially the best back-up to Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts.

Ronan O’Gara/Luke Fitzgerald: Watched from the stands, but it was a good day for them after unconvincing displays from their Test rivals. Jones struggled, while Monye’s uncertainty in defence will have been noted.

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