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Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 17:34 UK

Earls given nod for Lions opener

Venue: Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, Rustenburg
Date: Saturday, 30 May Kick-off: 1400 BST (1500 local time)
Coverage: Live text commentary and score updates on BBC Sport website; Score updates on BBC Radio 5 Live

Ireland centre Keith Earls in Lions training
Earls, 21, is the youngest player currently on tour with the Lions

Ireland's Keith Earls will be among nine debutants in a British and Irish Lions side featuring seven Welshmen for Saturday's tour opener in South Africa.

He joins captain Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara and fellow Irish debutant Tommy Bowe against a Royal XV in Rustenburg.

Lee Byrne, Jamie Roberts, Andy Powell, Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Scot Mike Blair and England flanker Joe Worsley will also play their first Lions match.

England duo Andrew Sheridan and Simon Shaw complete the tourists' line-up.

Five more players - Wales duo Mike Phillips and Alun-Wyn Jones, Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris plus England pair Riki Flutey and Lee Mears - could also taste their first action as a Lion off the bench.

With Wales' 20-year-old wing Leigh Halfpenny yet to join the tour, Earls, 21, is currently the youngest player in the squad.

The Munster centre or full-back, who won his first two caps last autumn, played no part in Ireland's Six Nations Grand Slam campaign but emerged as a Lions 'bolter' after some strong displays for his province.

With Brian O'Driscoll among seven players not considered after their involvement in European finals last weekend, Saturday is an early chance for Earls to stake a claim at outside centre.

"I think it is really exciting we have a lot of players making their debuts," said head coach Ian McGeechan.

"I remember my debut for the Lions against Western Transvaal in 1974, and it is a career highlight.


"For young men such as Keith Earls and Jamie Roberts it will be a day to remember and they will be thrilled to get an early taste of match action on the tour.

"While we have a lot of players making their Lions debuts, there is a huge amount of international experience in the team. The average age is 28 and that reflects the maturity we have in the squad."

Martyn Williams, Ronan O'Gara and Simon Shaw are all are on their third Lions tour, while Shane Williams, Andrew Sheridan and O'Connell, plus replacements Stephen Jones and Phil Vickery, are on their second.

"They know exactly what is in store in terms of the provincial matches," McGeechan added.

"Following excellent preparations and a period of acclimatisation in South Africa, I know the lads are raring to go against the Royal XV and will be anxious to get the tour off to the best possible start."

Shane Williams, Tommy Bowe and Lee Byrne pictured together
Shane Williams, Tommy Bowe and Lee Byrne form an all-Ospreys back three

McGeechan has chosen a proven combination, all from the Ospreys, in the back three, but the partnerships of Roberts and Earls at centre, O'Gara and Blair at half-back, and Shaw and O'Connell at lock, will be tried for the first time.

"I want to look at different combinations, guys who have never played together before," added McGeechan.

"All the players have huge attributes and hopefully they will bring those to the fore in combination with different players. Hopefully the players will bring the best out of each other."

The quartet of Leinster players - O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Jamie Heaslip - plus Leicester's Tom Croft and Harry Ellis and Northampton prop Euan Murray were rested for the opening match after their exertions last weekend.

But they are likely to be involved in the second match against the Golden Lions in Johannesburg next Wednesday.

The tourists' opening opponents are largely drawn from the Griquas, the winners of South Africa's second-tier domestic tournament the Vodacom Cup.

Lions team v Royal XV:

Lee Byrne (Ospreys/Wales), Tommy Bowe (Ospreys/Ireland), Keith Earls (Munster/Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Shane Williams (Ospreys/Wales); Ronan O'Gara (Munster/Ireland), Mike Blair (Edinburgh/Scotland); Andrew Sheridan (Sales Sharks/England), Matthew Rees (Scarlets/Wales), Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Simon Shaw (London Wasps/England), Paul O'Connell (Munster/Ireland - captain), Joe Worsley (London Wasps/England), Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Andy Powell (Cardiff Blues/Wales).
Replacements: Lee Mears (Bath/England), Phil Vickery (London Wasps/England), Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Stephen Ferris (Ulster/Ireland), Mike Phillips (Ospreys/Wales), Stephen Jones (Scarlets/Wales), Riki Flutey (London Wasps/England).

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