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JACKSON COLUMN: Door swings open for Lions hopefuls

Guinness PRO12 Editor

7 Nov 2012


When they come under starter’s orders for the first international weekend of the season, more than two-thirds of the last Lions Test team will be missing….writes Peter Jackson.

Of the starting XV in Johannesburg where the 2009 tourists signed off with one of their most emphatic wins, only four are likely to be in the field for the first serious Lions audition of the campaign – Ugo Monye, Tommy Bowe, Matthew Rees and Jamie Heaslip. 

The rest are either out of favour and out of action temporarily or for good.

The casualty list is headed by four of the very best from the RaboDirect PRO12, a quartet with an enviable reputation for excellence in their position – Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Adam Jones and Paul O'Connell. 

The Welsh ‘Hair Bear,’ Europe’s supreme tighthead prop who missed the Johannesburg finale because of injury, is in the painstaking throes of recovering from the knee damage which forces him to join his Irish colleagues in postponing international matters beyond this weekend. 

The remaining eight members of the original cast responsible for blitzing the Springboks 28-9 three-and-a-bit years ago, have either retired or been left free to concentrate on club affairs. 

Phil Vickery, Joe Worsley and Martyn Williams all decided a while back that they had pushed Father Time far enough. 
Riki Flutey and Shane Williams are plying a lucrative trade in Japan which leaves three still to be accounted for – Stephen Jones, Mike Phillips and Simon Shaw. 

They are still playing and still available for national service even if, in the case of Jones and Shaw, their countries have put them out to graze. As for Phillips, he finds himself in the unaccustomed position of sitting on the bench playing second fiddle to Tavis Knoyle.

Of the seven substitutes for the climax to that humdinger of a series against the Springboks, three have hung up their boots. 

John ‘Bull’ Hayes did so on his own terms, a privilege denied his Munster team-mate David Wallace and the Leicester scrum half Harry Ellis, each left no option but to quit because of injury.

Tom Croft, a huge hit in South Africa not least with his two tries during the first Test in Durban, has spent the last six months recovering from neck damage. 

A back row forward with the athleticism of a wing and the ability to double up as an emergency lock, Croft has been sorely missed by club and country. Leicester hope to have him back by the end of the month and England for the start of the Six Nations in February.

Between them, the four home countries will be without at least 23 internationals because of injury. Eight are nursing knee conditions, six more due to neck and shoulder issues and another five with bad ankles.

A silver lining can sometimes be found on even the dirtiest cloud and the enforced absence of so many gives others an early crack at playing themselves into contention.

Somewhere over the course of the four matches – England v Fiji, Wales v Argentina, Ireland v South Africa and Scotland v New Zealand – head coach Warren Gatland will expect to run the rule over some new converts to the cause.

“There are going to be players who haven’t been in the country particularly long but who qualify on residency or because of their grandparents,” he says. “They are available and if they are the best in their position, they need to be considered.”

He is referring to Ireland’s prospective new hooker Richardt Strauss, eligible by residence since completing three years with Leinster and needed to fill the vacancy caused by Rory Best’s injury. 

Aaron Jarvis replaces Jones on the tighthead of the Welsh scrum against Argentina because the Ospreys discovered the new cap’s ancestral claim and signed him from Bath on the strength of his grandmother having come from Merthyr Tydfil.

No potential arrival on the Test scene has moved more swiftly from touch down to a place in the national squad than Michael Bent, in his case thanks to the Irish birth of his maternal granny. 

No sooner had he landed in Dublin than the New Zealander found himself in the Ireland squad.

It all happened before Bent could even find time to make his debut for his new province, Leinster. England’s mangling of their scrum in Mike Ross’ unavoidable absence at Twickenham last season forced the Irish to trawl the world to find tighthead cover for Ross.

The prospect of Bent’s first match in Ireland being for the national team has prompted no shortage of criticism, not least from former Ireland captain Keith Wood. 

“I respect the fact that people will have their views,” head coach Declan Kidney said. “Our job is to put the best team out for Ireland. Those are the rules. Everyone is doing it.”

British and Irish non-Test starters this weekend:

15 Rob Kearney (Ireland)
14 Ben Foden (England)
13 Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
12 Jonathan Davies (Wales)
11 Nikki Walker (Scotland)
10 Duncan Weir (Scotland)
9 Chris Cusiter (Scotland)
1 Alex Corbisiero (England)
2 Rory Best (Ireland)
3 Adam Jones (Wales)
4 Courtney Lawes (England)
5 Paul O'Connell (Ireland) 
6 Danny Lydiate (Wales) or Stephen Ferris (Ireland).
7 Sean O’Brien (Ireland)
8 Ryan Jones (Wales)

Also injured:

Scotland – Joe Ansbro, Rory Lamont, Graeme Morrison, Moray Low
England – Dylan Hartley, Rob Webber, Tom Croft