Confident Lions aim to out-flank Boks
Durban, Thursday evening
So after all the conjecture and deliberation over the identity of the 2009 Lions, what have we ended up with?
By and large, the side that most pundits predicted before the outset of the tour, and the one which has naturally taken shape since their arrival in South Africa.
There were no real surprises, no tactical innovations or left-field selections to bamboozle the Boks.
With the exception of pre-tour injury victim Jerry Flannery, who would have been favourite for the hooking berth, and wing Shane Williams, whose form has not been good enough to justify his inclusion, there are no real absentees of note.
But there was still a constant theme running through the list of 22 names read out by Lions manager Gerald Davies to an expectant media at the tourists' beachfront hotel in Durban.
Mobility rather than man-power, speed of thought and foot as well as strength, ability to out-run and out-think the Boks rather than out-muscle them, is the order of the day.
When the original Lions squad was announced nearly two months ago, much was made of the "big beasts" in the party, the assumption being that matching the hosts' physical threat was the number one priority.
But while the side Ian McGeechan has decided upon is not lacking in physical stature,
his final comment of his media conference was perhaps his most revealing.
"I didn't look at the size and the weight of the players I picked, I just went for the best players I had seen in the Six Nations," he said. "Some happen to be bigger than others, but it wasn't a criteria. I just wanted good rugby players."
Some of the biggest beasts in the Lions jungle - Adam Jones, Andrew Sheridan, Nathan Hines and Simon Shaw - have not made the Test line-up, although 20-stone tight-head Jones will be on the bench.
The media may have drummed up the scrummaging threat posed by Sheridan, but the coaches have obviously intended all along to use the more athletic Gethin Jenkins, no lightweight himself at 18st 8lb.
The powerhouse Welsh prop has had the lightest workload of any of the front-five forwards on tour, with just two starts in the six warm-up games, and admits he is "busting a gut" to be unleashed on the Springboks for what will be his fourth consecutive Lions Test, one he is happy to label "the biggest game of my life".
Jenkins typifies the attitude that every Lion, particularly the pack, will need on Saturday - a player capable of making a tackle or cleaning out Springboks loitering at the breakdown, with the strength and speed to get straight back up and do it over and over again..
"As an eight, we know we need to really smash into the rucks to get our backs the quick ball they need, and that will be the case from the first minute to the 80th," noted Jenkins, one of six Welshmen in the starting XV.
While McGeechan has continually stressed he would not pick his Test team until after Tuesday's final warm-up match, or play them together as a 15, retrospectively we can see he has had a good idea of it from day one.
Encouragingly, all the combinations selected for Saturday have featured in one or both of the Lions' two most impressive performances of the tour.
The 74-10 rout of the Golden Lions featured 13 of the same starters - minus Lee Byrne and Paul O'Connell - that will face the Springboks on Saturday.
And 11 of Saturday's team - minus Tommy Bowe, Ugo Monye, Stephen Jones and Phil Vickery - also started in the 39-3 victory over the Sharks in Durban last Wednesday, the only time O'Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones have started together.
The back row trio of Tom Croft, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip, and the centre combination of Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts, played on both occasions.
Croft and Heaslip both offer useful line-out options at the tail and could well be regular targets for the pin-point throwing of hooker Lee Mears, to offset the pilfering power of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha further forward.
McGeechan admitted the call between Wallace and Martyn Williams - "two clever players" - at open-side was a close one, and that there was a temptation to play them together, but preferred to keep players in their number one positions.
What they have lost in Williams' ball scavenging and link-up play, they have gained with Croft's work-rate, speed around the park and line-out ability, and Williams can always be summoned from the bench to assist the breakdown battle if required.
Behind the scrum, Stephen Jones's greater running game - "he is a threat in his own right" said McGeechan - and decision-making gave him the nod over Ronan O'Gara, while Ugo Monye's finishing power saw him clinch the left-wing berth. "He has shown that when he sees the try-line, he doesn't often miss it," McGeechan noted.
So with the reassuring presence and tactical kicking game of Lee Byrne at full-back, the devastating running of Bowe on the other wing and the power and class of the Roberts/O'Driscoll partnership, the Lions are not short of strike-power.
Or experience. The Springboks were happy to trumpet the 707 caps in their match-day 22 when they unveiled their line-up on Tuesday.
But the Lions can trump that with a whopping 1018 caps in their match-day squad, if you include the 21 caps eight players - five in the starting side, three on the bench - have earned in previous Lions Tests.
While McGeechan accepts the Lions are facing "probably the best team in the world at the moment" on Saturday, there is little mistaking the quiet air of confidence running through his men.
Certainly captain O'Connell was happy to reel off the armoury at his disposal - "great pace in the back row, great pace in the backline, a very fit tight five, a very good scrummaging tight five" - as he contemplated what will be required if the Lions are to pull off their first Test victory since the first match of the 2001 series in Australia.
"If we put together an 80-minute performance, there is no doubt we can win," he insisted.
It is 20 years since the Lions went into a Test series unbeaten in their warm-up matches. But on that occasion they lost the first Test in Australia before winning the next two, the only time they have come from behind to win a series.
Despite McGeechan's contention that this is only the first of a three-match series, he knows better than anyone that victory at sea level on Saturday, before the remaining two Tests at altitude, is imperative if these Lions are to join the legends.
His squad are, barring a few injury setbacks, pretty much exactly where he would like them to be heading into a Test match after only five weeks together.
But the hard part has only just started. Saturday, as McGeechan acknowledged, is a whole different ball game.