Lions guessing game nearly over
Port Elizabeth, Monday evening
The guessing game of Lions Test selection is nearly over, but not quite.
In naming his side to face the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday, head coach Ian McGeechan gave the Springboks advance warning of most of his chosen 15 for Saturday's looming set-to in Durban.
Although in theory one or two players could - in the words of Tuesday's captain Donncha O'Callaghan - "force the coach's hand with a huge performance", this was always a match for which no serious Test contender wanted to be selected.
The big winners appear to be the Welsh trio of loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins, lock Alun-Wyn Jones and, possibly, flanker Martyn Williams.
The decision to give Andrew Sheridan his second start in four days removes any doubt that Jenkins - who is apparently straining at the leash - will start his fourth successive Lions Test, having featured in all three in New Zealand in 2005.
Likewise the coaches appear to have abandoned their policy of playing a big bruiser in the second row to counteract Bakkies Botha, with Nathan Hines - who also started on Saturday - now more likely to be a bench candidate in Durban.
The greater athleticism and line-out prowess of Wyn Jones appears to have held sway in settling the tricky issue of captain Paul O'Connell's second-row partner.
The back row still remains unclear though, with Williams now a strong candidate for the open-side berth after his performance against Western Province on Saturday.
That is not to say David Wallace is out of the equation by any means, and his presence on the bench on Tuesday may owe as much to giving Williams' shoulder more time to recuperate as a definitive decision in the Welshman's favour.
Williams will travel to Durban on Tuesday with Lee Byrne, Jamie Roberts, Stephen Jones, Mike Phillips, Jenkins, Lee Mears, Phil Vickery, Wyn Jones, Paul O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip, who can all now be certain of featuring in the first Test.
Tommy Bowe would have been them but for a late summons to join the rest of the squad on a short charter flight to Port Elizabeth to cover for the unwell Shane Williams.
While the World Player of the Year looks set to miss out on Test selection for Saturday, if his namesake Martyn makes the starting XV, a seven-strong Welsh contingent would be the Principality's largest of the professional era and highest since the 1970s.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity on Tuesday falls to fly-half James Hook, who could yet turn pre-tour predictions on their head and force his way into the Test side.
McGeechan prefers not to shower praise on individuals, but he was happy to label the Welshman's contribution on this tour as "brilliant".
Hook, 24 on the day of the second Test, has started only one match - against the Cheetahs - but come on as a replacement in three others after being added to the squad the day before their departure to South Africa as cover for Leigh Halfpenny.
Considering the coaches felt that he was not deserving of the third fly-half spot when the original squad was named, leap-frogging Jones and Ronan O'Gara into the Test team would represent a remarkable turnaround in fortunes.
While it would still be a major surprise if he overtakes compatriot Jones, a place on the Test bench appears increasingly likely, given he can also cover centre and full-back, and win matches at the death with his long-range goalkicking.
McGeechan does not have the luxury of resting his entire likely Test 22, and
each of the replacements - particularly Tom Croft, David Wallace and Ugo Monye - are still live candidates to start in Durban.
Big performances from number eight Andy Powell, prop Euan Murray and hooker Ross Ford could also see them enter the Test replacements equation.
McGeechan has already given encouragement to those on duty in Port Elizabeth by reminding them that on the 1997 tour here, Ireland lock Jeremy Davidson played against the Emerging Springboks on the Tuesday before the first Test before lining up against the real thing four days later.
"It is obviously less likely [we are going to make the Test team] but it is not unheard of," said Scotland scrum-half Mike Blair as he contemplated his first start - late fitness test permitting - since the opening match of the tour.
"The guys playing have also got the responsibility to keep the momentum going so the whole squad is buzzing for that first Test. Everyone obviously wants to be part of it but our job is to raise the bar for those that are playing,"
The man tasked with making sure that message is drilled home on the field is O'Callaghan, who looked as surprised as anybody when he faced the media as the fourth different captain to be asked to lead out a Lions side on this tour.
O'Callaghan's contribution to the success of Munster and Ireland is often overlooked amid the attention on his second-row partner O'Connell, who is actually five months his junior.
But the party's joker-in-chief - a two-Test Lion in 2005 - is also a seriously talented player in his own right and perhaps epitomises why there is a growing sense that this 2009 vintage could be on the verge of something special.
"I think this tour has pushed a lot of us out of our comfort zones," said the 30-year-old, who has no qualms about playing again three days after his last outing, as do Keith Earls, Riki Flutey, Sheridan, Hines, Joe Worsley and Powell.
"You get used to having two days of recovery with your club or country but it is great for us to be playing again so soon. It is a bit old school and something a lot of us haven't had before, but it gives us the feel of a club team."