Final trial for Lions Test contenders
Cape Town, Friday afternoon:
In a hotel room in Durban late next Tuesday evening, Ian McGeechan and the rest of the brains trust on this Lions tour will sit down and pick a team to face South Africa.
McGeechan likens himself to a 'benevolent dictator' who will have the final say on selection after some 'straight-talking' discussions with his assistant coaches Shaun Edwards, Warren Gatland and Rob Howley.
In theory that process won't start until the conclusion of Tuesday's afternoon fixture against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, after which the squad fly to Durban that evening to prepare to face the Springboks four days later.
But although McGeechan is adamant there will still be opportunities for those turning out on Tuesday to be part of the Test equation, reality dictates that the best they can hope for by then is a place on the bench.
Playing a full game four days before you face the world champions would hardly be considered ideal preparation. So Saturday's match against Western Province is akin to a final trial, a last chance for players to state a conclusive case.
"I don't want easy decisions next week," McGeechan said, "I want to have to sit down on Tuesday night and have some really big calls to make because the players are really challenging us as coaches."
So what are the biggest calls he and his coaching cabal are likely to face? Let's break it down into specific areas.
Given Lee Byrne has probably been the Lions' player of the tour so far, it will take something sensational from Rob Kearney against Western Province to dissuade the coaches from handing the Welshman the number 15 jersey.
No wonder the Irishman believes a mere "solid, consistent game is not going to get me into the Test side" on only his second tour start, so prepare for some fireworks from the back. "It is 80 minutes tomorrow or nothing," he added.
Considering he was in bed for 13 straight days with mumps last month, spent a week in hospital, lost over a stone and "had every supplement in the country down my throat" to get back to his optimum weight, Kearney is doing pretty well.
Another strong display on Saturday, after his successful outing against Golden Lions, could earn him a place on the Test bench given his ability to also play on the wing.
Tommy Bowe is candid enough to admit "I think I have as good a chance as anyone" of making the Test side. After a scintillating display in that rout of the Golden Lions, only a seriously bad game on Saturday should deny him the right wing spot.
The other flank is far more open. Shane Williams has failed to shine in three starts, and Luke Fitzgerald has also probably not done enough. A second strong showing from Ugo Monye could be enough for the Englishman, but if he fails to convince, McGeechan and company have a tough call to make.
Keith Earls must realise privately that he whatever he does on Saturday, Brian O'Driscoll has the number 13 jersey under lock and key, barring mishaps.
Riki Flutey probably has more to play for, even if his first start of the tour has probably come too late to dislodge Jamie Roberts from the 12 shirt.
If Flutey proves he has recovered his sharpness after a knee injury, he could come into contention as a midfield replacement option in Durban.
While Ronan O'Gara has done little wrong in two largely composed outings, the feeling is that a second strong showing from Stephen Jones on Saturday should be enough to see him start at fly-half.
James Hook, on the bench in Cape Town, is also in the mix as a possible Test replacement, given he covers more positions than O'Gara.
The assumption is Mike Phillips has sown up the scrum-half jersey, although Harry Ellis will want to cement his status as the most likely bench option ahead of Mike Blair with a convincing outing against Western Province.
Lee Mears appears to have seen off Ross Ford and Matthew Rees, who starts on Saturday, for the hooker's role, but the props are an altogether different issue.
The Lions are blessed at loose-head, where another strong scrummaging display from Andrew Sheridan could tip the balance in his favour if the tourists feel the Springboks have a genuine weakness with skipper John Smit likely to start at tight-head.
But "Big Ted" probably needs to show more around the field to dislodge Gethin Jenkins, who has become the most potent all-round prop in the northern hemisphere.
Both could make it into the Test 22, with whoever misses out a likely bench option.
On the tight-head side, there is no doubt that by starting Phil Vickery, rather than Euan Murray, on Saturday, McGeechan has given the English warhorse the platform to earn the Test number three jersey, eight years after he wore it in Australia.
"The reality is this could be my last chance to prove I should be in that Test side," said Vickery as he contemplated a situation where it now appears to be between him and Adam Jones, both props comfortable with the ball in open play.
"There are going to be a lot of bitterly disappointed guys when that team is announced," added Saturday's skipper, who will lead the Lions for the first time. "I just want to make sure I have put my name into that mix."
Despite suggestions in some quarters that captain Paul O'Connell has not shone sufficiently to justify his guaranteed status, the reality for Saturday's two locks, Nathan Hines and Donncha O'Callaghan, is that nothing has changed.
They knew before the tour that they - along with Simon Shaw and Alun-Wyn Jones - were effectively competing for one spot.
Shaw's presence on the bench on Saturday suggests he is out of the running, and is likely to start on Tuesday in Port Elizabeth, while Wyn Jones remains very much in contention for at least a bench spot, if not a starting role.
But a big statement from Hines, particularly in the line-out, would put the aggressive Scot from Wagga Wagga in pole position for an enforcer's job alongside O'Connell to take on the Boks' formidable pairing of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.
Barring a barnstorming outing from Andy Powell, where he can show he has the vision and off-loading game to go with his power, Jamie Heaslip appears to have the number eight jersey in the bag. But the flank positions are more open to late claims.
Joe Worsley is starting in his favoured blind-side role for the first time since the opening match against the Royal XV, and could yet force his way in ahead of the more athletic Tom Croft, who provides more options in the line-out department.
Worsley could also be a strong Test bench option given he can cover all three roles.
David Wallace is currently favourite for the open-side berth but has not enjoyed a totally commanding outing on tour to date, so there is hope for Martyn Williams.
If the fit-again Welshman convinces at the breakdown, and also finds time to show his superior creative skills as a link-man, that number seven jersey could yet be his.