Red-blooded Tito pride of Taranaki

THE sight of a giant second row with a mop of ginger hair marauding all over the lineout and stealing opposition ball is something the British & Irish Lions are counting on as a major weapon in their armoury during this tour.

Yet while Paul O'Connell contemplates his new status as the Lions pack leader following the injury to Lawrence Dallaglio and a storming performance against Bay Of Plenty, the tourists could get a taste of their own medicine when they face Taranaki at the Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth tomorrow (8.10am Irish time).

Their potential nemesis is Taranaki captain Paul 'Fish' Tito, an 82-match veteran of the NPC side and a leading light for the Wellington Hurricanes Super 12 franchise. He is a year older than O'Connell at 26 and just under an inch shorter than the Irishman's 6ft 4ins frame, but Tito is determined to make his mark on tomorrow's encounter.

Tito spent last weekend in Suva, playing for the New Zealand Maori as they struggled to edge past Fiji, but rather than stay with Matt Te Pau's side for this Saturday's showdown with the Lions, he opted to return to his province and proudly lead his beloved amber-and-blacks against the midweek tourists.

"My heart's with Taranaki, this is my ninth year with them and I'm really looking forward to it," Tito said. The captain believes that his side will not need much revving up to face the Lions.

"I don't think I'm going to need to say much to the players actually. I just think the boys are going to get stuck into them."

Tito will lead an impressive Taranaki pack fronting up to the Lions. All Blacks hooker Andrew Hore, who played four Tests in 2004 but was discarded by selectors following last weekend's trial, leads a formidable front row with Hurricanes Super 12 prop Tony Penn and former non-Test All Black Gordon Slater either side of him.

Slater, 33, has played against the 1993 Lions.

Another Hurricanes player is loose forward Chris Masoe, who has a reputation for abrasive aggression. The provincial side's back division is less esteemed, the pick being the speedy Sailosi Tagicakibau on the wing, who will face the Lions just 38 days after suffering a hairline fracture to his leg during the Chiefs' Super 12 victory against the Stormers in Cape Town.

The Lions won't have the luxury of welcoming back Dallaglio to the fold, of course, but head coach Clive Woodward is desperate to draw a line under his Number 8's departure and has instructed his players to move on to the next challenge.

A fresh set of Lions will take on Taranaki, and Geordan Murphy is only too aware he has a hard act to follow at full-back following the man-of-the-match display against Bay Of Plenty of Josh Lewsey.

"I always love challenges," Murphy said, "and for me personally I'd love to be playing in a Lions Test shirt at 15 preferably.

"So for me it's fantastic that Josh played so well. He was absolutely fantastic, unblemished, scored a couple of tries and could have got a hat-trick but was unselfish at the end of the game.

"If players like Josh set the bar so high for the rest of the guys, then that will hopefully raise our game as players."

Murphy insisted, however, that the individual fight for Test selection comes a distant second to getting the right result tomorrow morning.

"I suppose I learnt very early in my rugby career that the game isn't all about scoring tries. It is about team performances. It is obviously important to play well and that is always the aim when I step onto a rugby field, but there is no fear of me trying to do anything spectacular.

"It is more important that the team gets the win and I'd rather have an average performance with the team winning that a fantastic personal performance and a poor defeat."

TARANAKI: S Ireland, S Tagicakibau, M Stewart, L Mafi, C Woods, S Young, C Fevre; T Penn, A Hore, G Slater, S Breman, P Tito captain, J Willis, C Masoe, T Soqeta.

Replacements: P Mitchell, H Mitchell, J Eaton, R Bryant, M Harvey, B Watt, J King.

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: G Murphy (Ireland), S Horgan (Ireland), W Greenwood (England) vice captain, O Smith (England), D Hickie (Ireland), C Hodgson (England), C Cusiter (Scotland); G Rowntree (England), A Titterrell (England), J Hayes (Ireland), D O'Callaghan (Ireland), D Grewcock (England), M Corry (England), capt, L Moody (England), M Owen (Wales).

Replacements: S Byrne (Ireland), G Jenkins (Wales), B Kay (England), M Williams (Wales), G Cooper (Wales), J Wilkinson (England), G Henson (Wales).

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