Michael Owen has challenged his Lions midweek team-mates to “keep the pressure on” and shrug off their Test disappointment.
Wales number eight Owen will lead the Lions against Southland in Invercargill tomorrow, with head coach Clive Woodward having already identified his squad to face the All Blacks next Saturday.
Owen finds himself keeping good company, as fellow Six Nations Grand Slam winners Gavin Henson and Martyn Williams are also frozen out, alongside Irish pair Geordan Murphy and Simon Easterby and England’s Charlie Hodgson.
Centre Henson has put a brave face on his shock omission from Woodward’s first-Test plans, and it now appears to be a straight choice between Jonny Wilkinson and a revitalised Will Greenwood as midfield partner for skipper Brian O’Driscoll.
If Woodward goes with the experienced Greenwood, who would make a Lions Test debut on his third tour at the age of 32, then it is Wilkinson or Welsh Grand Slam star Stephen Jones at fly-half.
Owen’s task, though, is to concentrate minds and bodies on the clash at Rugby Park, where the Lions are unbeaten in four games since 1966.
“The spirit of the squad is fantastic and we are looking forward to the Southland game,” said Owen, who starts his third match on tour.
“It is about working together as a team and, as we saw in the game against Otago on Saturday, we all want to keep the pressure on and push for Test places.”
Southland are not expected to seriously threaten the Lions, although their line-up includes former All Blacks scrum-half Jimmy Cowan and centre Faolua Muliaina, brother of current New Zealand star Mils.
Woodward will unveil his Test line-up on Wednesday, but the task now for his fellow coaches Ian McGeechan and Gareth Jenkins revolves around keeping the “midweek” players motivated.
“We are talking about established international players and there will be disappointments this week,” said McGeechan.
“But you have got to remember that around 50% of Lions players not selected in the first Test play Test rugby at some stage in a Test series.”
Woodward added: “Those who play against Southland have every chance of playing in the second Test match.
“How the non-Test 22 react this week will be very important. Just because you are not picked this week, there are still two Tests to go and there is time for players to come through."