WITH such a short run-in to the first test, no previous Lions tour has ever been as rife with speculation at this early stage concerning Ian McGeechan's line-up for that all-important clash with the Springboks in a fortnight's time.
It's not just that the series is the be-all and end-all of the tour, it's more that if the Lions fail to win in Durban, they'll be staring down the barrel of a 3-0 whitewash. At the end of a long season which has drained both the physical and psychological reserves, it's impossible to see the players coming back from an opening defeat to take the series.
Yesterday's fumbling second-half performance against the Cheetahs did little to advance many causes with the exception of Stephen Ferris whose simmering presence has certainly given McGeechan something to think about.
In fact, several candidates such as Shane Williams, Andy Powell and Joe Worsley did themselves no favours at all, and even though the Lions scrum was solid, the likes of Andrew Sheridan, Euan Murray and Ross Ford are now clearly off the pace.
Obviously, a win in the first test is no guarantee of outright victory, but at least it keeps the show on the road until the final game at Ellis Park on 4 July. Instead of spending that last interminable week knowing that all is lost and wishing they were anywhere else but cooped up in the dreary, antiseptic suburbs of Johannesburg, the Lions will still have a shot at glory.
So even if McGeechan and his coaches have had to cope with the stresses of mixing and matching players while trying to get results at the same time, all roads and all thoughts are leading beyond Cape Town and Port Elizabeth to that showdown with the world champions.
Injuries notwithstanding, several slots in the starting XV have already been pre-booked. It didn't take long last Wednesday for Brian O'Driscoll to demonstrate that the body is functioning as fast as brain. There were a couple of razor-sharp half-breaks and offloads, as well as one or two thumping tackles which were more than enough to convince the management that a midfield combination of the impressive Jamie Roberts and Ireland's captain will do just fine.
It's possible now that O'Driscoll will kept under wraps for the Sharks game on Wednesday with one eye on what will be a virtual test line-up against Western Province in Cape Town next Saturday.
The same might go for Tommy Bowe who is the most improved back in European rugby this season. If no one ever doubted his athleticism, there have been justifiable question marks over both his finishing and his all-round footballing ability, but after some excellent performances for the Ospreys, and after the adrenaline rush of Ireland's Grand Slam, Bowe's confidence has soared while Williams' has fallen like a stone.
The Welsh stepper will get one more chance to redeem himself, however, it appears that his number is up with Ugo Monye, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney now the main contenders. Monye's lack of a kicking game could go against him, and although Fitzgerald struggled to make an impression in midfield yesterday, he could well end up on the left wing.
While Lee Byrne almost handed the game to the Cheetahs with an uncharacteristic handling error at the death, he remains ahead of Kearney for the full-back position. Meanwhile, if Williams' star is on the wane, Ronan O'Gara appears to be the biggest loser to date. O'Gara deserved some credit for the way he eventually closed out the Royal XV in last weekend's hugely disappointing opener, and he would definitely have been expecting to start yesterday's game, but the fact that James Hook was given the jersey ahead of him is a clear sign of where he now stands in the pecking order.
It's not that Stephen Jones and Mike Phillips were utterly convincing at Ellis Park, however, they are already a tried and tested partnership and while Jones is not a dissimilar sort of out-half to O'Gara, who remained glued to the bench in Bloemfontein, his defence is superior.
Equally, his link with O'Driscoll and Roberts was pretty smooth for the most part and now it appears as if that the half-back and midfield partnerships could be retained en bloc for next Saturday's game against Western Province.
If he hasn't slipped quite as alarmingly as O'Gara, David Wallace's prospects of making the cut for the first test are not as strong as they were before the tour. Like most of the side in Rustenburg, he was caught flat-footed, and although there was a marked improvement against the Golden Lions, he wasn't as dynamic as Tom Croft or as hard-working as Jamie Heaslip.
In his newspaper column following the game in Rustenburg, defence coach Shaun Edwards waxed lyrical about the effects of altitude: "Try to imagine a red-hot cup of tea being poured down your air pipes every time you breathe," was his take on playing in the thin air of the high veld, and few appeared to suffer more than Martyn Williams who was ruled out of the win against the Cheetahs because of a shoulder knock.
It goes without saying that Williams is still very much in the management's plans, but he needs to put down a marker either on Wednesday or next Saturday to demonstrate that he's in front of Wallace. The bottom line is that if the likes of Williams or Wallace fail to compete at the breakdown which is currently giving the Lions a major headache, it won't really matter who is picked for the tests.
Looking at the prowess, or lack of it, of the current Lions hookers, Jerry Flannery must be feeling unbelievably frustrated. On his Ireland and Munster form, he would have been well ahead of the rest, but on the basis of his industry and accurate throwing, Lee Mears is in pole position at the moment after Ford's underwhelming contribution yesterday, with Gethin Jenkins a sure bet ahead of Sheridan for the loose head berth.
It seemed before departure that Phil Vickery's relative lack of mobility might count against him, but at a time when O'Connell needs a few wise old heads around him, the former England captain, who was excellent against the Golden Lions, looks set to start in the tests with Murray coming into the action maybe just past the hour mark.
Although there has been much talk of the need for the Lions to match up to the Springboks in the physical stakes, it is a possibility now that Croft could see off the challenges of Alun-Wyn Jones, Simon Shaw, Nathan Hines and Donncha O'Callaghan and end up partnering Paul O'Connell in the second row.
Not alone does Croft provide exceptional pace and athleticism, he is a superb line-out forward. If the Lions went for a back row of Ferris, Williams or Wallace and Heaslip, there might just be a surprise place for Croft.
If the demolition of the Golden Lions put the tour on the right track, McGeechan undoubtedly learned more from yesterday's uneasy victory. Right now he has a good idea of his test line-up, and this time next week, he'll know it for certain.
15 Lee Byrne
14 Tommy Bowe
13 Brian O'Driscoll
12 Jamie Roberts
11 Luke Fitzgerald
10 Stephen Jones
9 Mike Phillips
1 Gethin Jenkins
2 Lee Mears
3 Phil Vickery
4 Tom Croft
5 Paul O'Connell (capt)
6 Stephen Ferris
7 Martyn Williams
8 Jamie Heaslip