A View From Below

Sporting debate and opinion

British and Irish Lions face Springboks in crucial first test in the ABSA Park arena, Durban

The waiting is nearly over for the first test of the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa.
At 3pm local time, the best players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales will confront the Rugby World Champions and probably the best side in the world at the moment.

The Lions, while not being emphatically convincing in all of their victories have clocked up six wins from six games, an 100% record not bettered by a Lions team for over 20 years. Head coach Ian McGeechan has been pleased with the tour so far and impresed with the battle hardened nature of his side and the way they have ground out victories. As Martin Williams, the Welsh openside flanker, stated in his blog for the BBC Sport Website that it is the close fought games from which a team learns more about itself.

Even so, for me I think the games that have really set the Lions up for the first test in Durban on saturday are the two of which they produced their best rugby, blistering pace in the backline combining with steel and prowess of the forwards. These two matches, albeit against heavily weakened sides – highlighted how the Lions when on top form have a very good chance of beating the formidable Springboks. The second game of the tour against the Golden Lions saw the British and Irish Lions run in 10 tries in a 72-10 demolition, with the fourth match against a tough Natal Sharks outfit seeing them produce half that amount of scores, 5, along with an outstanding team effort.

The players who performed so admiriably in these games, with a few exceptions, practically make up the test side announced yesteray. Only captain Paul O’Connell and full-back Lee Byrne started one of these matches where the Lions looked their best, and with Byrne impressing throughout the tour and O’Connell a focal point of the pack, it is easy to see why the management have opted for this lighter but more creative line-up.

Lee ByrneByrne, who missed out on selection for the 2007 World Cup, has risen up the ranks again and rebuilt his confidence to become arguably the best full-back in the world, whose catching and kicking from his left boot will be key for the Lions if they want to dominate territorially against the Boks. The Welshman will start in an attacking back three with England star Ugo Monye and Irishman Tommy Bowe. A suprise squad selection, Monye only really has one full season of international rugby behind him, but his finishing prowess and solid defensive attributes have allowed him to leapfrog out of form Shane Williams and Luke Fitzgerald. The other winger Tommy Bowe, is a fantastic runner of the ball and combines his pace and trickery on the flanks with soft hands in the pass, will add an extra dimension to the Lions backline after superlative performances in the Six Nations.

o'driscoll & robertsCentres Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll seem to have developed a strong understanding in the middle of the park, with backline moves flowing with at time telepathic ease. Roberts recently told of his suprise at his own meteoric rise to stardom. During the last Lions outing he was doing a tour of his own around Europe with some friends after completing his A-levels. The medicine student will now be out on the pitch hoping that his parternship with Irish great O’Driscoll can herald success. O’Driscoll himself will have a point to prove in this game after playing just a minute on his last tour after being injured against the All Blacks. The class of the outside centre is evident from the way he plays and his influnce and experience will be needed for the Lions if they have any chance of winning the test.

In the half-backs the Lions will look to the Welsh pairing of Stephen Jones and Mike Phillips. Jones has been a mixed bag so far during the tour, at times marshalling the side with control and authority, but also showing signs of nervousness in his final warm-up game against Western Province. Nonetheless, the Scarlets half back is preferred to Ronan O’Gara, most likely due to his greater physicality. Mike Phillips was the obvious choice at scrum half, his ability to provide a solid link between backs and forwards and his large prescence his strongest features.

Gethin JenkinsIn the forwards, the Lions will look to attack South Africa in the scrum and the loose, as they are likely to come off second best at the line-out due to the world-class pairing of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha dominating that area in most instances. For this reason McGeechan has picked a mobile and agile pack who will try to unsettle Springbok fluidity. Gethin Jenkins has been rewarded for his great form at International level with Wales with a test start ahead of the better scrummger Andrew Sheridan, but the Cardiff Blues prop has the quality to make tackles and hit the ball up in open play, a more rounded front row forward than his Sale counterpart. Lee Mears, who prepared for the tour to South Africa by working out in an altitude chamber to adapt to the different surroundings on the African continent, took advantage of the injury to first-choice Jerry Flannery. Phil Vickery shades the tight-head role for his experience and leadership honed in over a decade of top-level rugby.

The second row pairing of Paul O’Connell and Alyn Wyn Jones have a massive task ahead of them in the form of possibly the best Springbok locks in history. Having opting against a more physical partner for O’Connell, in the form of Hines, O’Callaghan or Shaw, coach McGeechan will be looking for Jones and O’Connell to compensate by their contributions in open play.

The back-row for the Lions perhaps hold the key to the first test. Much has been made of the Lions’ deficiences at the breakdown, and the two flankers, David Wallace and Tom Croft and No.8 Jamie Heaslip will have their work cut out to improve a part of the game that has really been lacking from McGeechan’s side. If these guys can come out on top against a strong Springbok trio of Heinrich Brussow, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies, then the Lions stand a chance.

The Lions face a must win game in Durban before the 2nd and 3rd tests which will be played at altitude, and I really do believe they can win this first test. The Springboks may be a little rusty after most of their players having not played for up to 7 weeks, and the Lions must take full advantage of this to hit the South Africans hard in the first half if they have any chance of triumphing over the full 80. Stephen Jones is the key man for the Lions for me, as his kicking and marshalling of the side will be needed to make sure the backline flows and the forwards put in the work in the South African 22. A big game for every player involved, the first test of this Lions series is sure to be explosive.

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June 20, 2009 - Posted by | Rugby Union

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