Paul O’Connell will lead a strong British & Irish Lions against the Sharks on Wednesday as they look to maintain their unbeaten start to the tour of South Africa.
Ian McGeechan, the Lions head coach, has tinkered with his side again as the Lions look to bounce back from a disappointing performance in their 26-24 win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
He has returned to proven combinations in the form of Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts, who proved almost unstoppable in the Lions’ record 74-10 victory over the Golden Lions, and in the back row.
The dynamic trio of Tom Croft, Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace will all start against the Sharks, who finished sixth in the Super 14. O’Connell, the Lions captain, and O’Driscoll have been named in the same team for the first time on the tour.
O’Connell is one of four players to be thrust back into action after starting Saturday’s tough win over the Cheetahs. The others are Luke Fitzgerald, who mores from centre to his more natural position on the wing, Shane Williams and Lee Byrne.
O’Connell will pack down with his third different second-row partner of the tour in Alun-Wyn Jones.
The Lions are also trying new starting combinations in the half backs, where Mike Phillips will link up with Ronan O’Gara, and in the front row with Lee Mears to hook between Welsh props Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins.
Martyn Williams is the only member of the squad unavailable for selection but Lions doctor James Robson expects the Wales flanker to recover from a shoulder problem in time for the weekend. England centre Riki Flutey has been included on the bench after recovering from a knee injury that almost forced him off the tour.
“I am delighted that as we head into the fourth match we only have one player who is unavailable for selection,” McGeechan said. “The players and the medical staff have managed the injuries that have been sustained in a very professional manner. This is crucial as we enter matches against two of South Africa’s strongest provinces in the Sharks and Western Province in the space of four days.”
The Lions are unbeaten so far on tour but the record victory over the Golden Lions was sandwiched by unconvincing wins against a Royal XV and the Cheetahs.
Gerald Davies, the tour manager, said: “We are now halfway through the provincial matches prior to the first Test and the important factor is that the Lions are unbeaten.
“The next challenge is the Sharks in Durban. The selected team will want to ensure that the 100 per cent playing record is maintained with a victory at ABSA Stadium, the venue of the first Test.”
British & Irish Lions team to play the Sharks in Durban on Wednesday:
L Byrne (Ospreys & Wales); S Williams (Ospreys & Wales), B O’Driscoll (Leinster & Ireland), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues & Wales), L Fitzgerald (Leinster & Ireland); R O’Gara (Munster & Ireland), M Phillips (Ospreys & Wales); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues & Wales), L Mears (Bath & England), A Jones (Ospreys & Wales), A-W Jones (Ospreys & Wales), P O’Connell (Munster & Ireland) (capt), T Croft (Leicester & England), D Wallace (Munster & Ireland), J Heaslip (Leinster & Ireland).
Replacements: M Rees (Scarlets & Wales), P Vickery (Wasps & England), S Shaw (Wasps & England), J Worsley (Wasps & England), M Blair (Edinburgh & Scotland), R Flutey (Wasps & England), L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues & Wales).