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Early depth test for Lions

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Friday, July 15, 2011    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

Whetu Henry, who did not make the 31-man Lions squad announced by Andre Bell on Wednesday, will make his debut at tighthead prop in the Lions' ITM Cup opener in New Plymouth after injuries to Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Jacob Ellison ruled them out.

Neemia Tialata switches to the loosehead side while Reggie Goodes and Arden David-Perrot - who are contracted for the season – will provide the propping cover on the extended eight-man bench that will be a new feature of the provincial competition this year.

"We've had a couple of little niggles in the front row. It's the first test of us using the depth of our players," said Bell. "Whetu has come from club rugby. He's been involved with us the last three or four weeks and gets his opportunity.

"He had a good hit-out against Canterbury last week and I think Watty (forwards coach Richard Watt) has got the confidence that he can take that tighthead position and with Neemia on the loosehead."

Toomaga-Allen, the only new player in this year's squad, damaged a hamstring in training over a week ago and Bell expects him to be on the sidelines for up to a month. Ellison (foot) will play club rugby this weekend and should be available for the next game against Auckland on July 23.

How long Bell has the services of Tialata remains to be seen. The front-rower told his followers on Twitter than he would play just the first two games for the Lions before taking up his contract overseas.

But according to Bell that may not be the case. "Twitter is a funny thing. He's with us and there are still All Black aspirations for him.

"It's still wait and see for him. At the moment he is contracted to Wellington Rugby."

When asked if Tialata had told him he was leaving in two weeks he replied "No."

But Bell was equally uncertain if he would have the big tighthead for the whole campaign.

"It's wait and see because the All Blacks are going into camp over the next two or three weeks and they might go to a Titch (Gordon Tietjens) training and a couple of guys might pull their hamstrings then all of a sudden...

"We would love for him to make the All Blacks. It's just a wait and see."

All Blacks Piri Weepu and Cory Jane return from the All Blacks camp in Auckland for the match, while the rest of the starting XV also has an experienced look about it with Dane Coles, Thrush, Mark Reddish, Victor Vito, Lima Sopoaga, Julian Savea, Michael Hobbs and Alapati Leiua all with Super Rugby experience.

The congested nature of the schedule means getting off to a good start and building momentum early will be crucial.

The new-look 14-team competition, which has been split into premiership and championship divisions and features cross-over matches between the two, is being crammed into eight weeks in order to be completed before the start of the Rugby World Cup.

After Saturday's away trip to Taranaki they will meet Auckland, Canterbury and Bay of Plenty - all by the end of July.

"It's build momentum and be smart about how we train," explained captain Jeremy Thrush. "We've got a six-day turnaround after the Taranaki game where we can put a bit of work in and have a couple of longer training session to get sorted.

"Then it kicks into overdrive really with all the games back-to-back."

Building a strong team culture has also been a focal point for the Lions, particularly for the players caught up in the turmoil of the Hurricanes campaign.

"Things started to creep up and it wasn't just over this season with the Canes. It had kind of been building for a little while," admitted Thrush.

"The boys that are in this (Lions) environment that are senior guys here probably weren't senior guys in the Hurricanes and don't want anything like that to happen.

"It just comes back to the team culture and the environment and how your leaders and everyone reacts and lead by example.

"That's the key thing I've been trying to get across to the boys, even those who have been here three or four years or who are in their second year. If you come back, have the right attitude and want to learn, then I think we'll be all right."

Wellington: 1. Neemia Tialata, 2. Dane Coles, 3. Whetu Henry, 4. Jeremy Thrush (capt), 5.Mark Reddish, 6. Brad Shields, 7. Scott Fuglistaller, 8. Victor Vito, 9. Piri Weepu, 10. Lima Sopoaga, 11. Julian Savea, 12. Michael Hobbs, 13. Alapati Leiua, 14. Jason Woodward, 15. Cory Jane.
Replacements: 16. Motu Matu'u, 17. Reggie Goodes, 18. Api Naikatini, 19 Faifili Levave, 20. TJ Perenara, 21. Steve Honey, 22. Apoua Stewart, 23. Arden David-Perrot.