PRETORIA // Victor Matfield, the Springbok line-out totem, yesterday admitted that there was some concern over the referee going into today's second Test match against the British & Irish Lions in Pretoria. Frenchman Christophe Berdos has been appointed to take charge and there is a belief that he could fundamentally influence the match with his rulings at the scrum and the breakdown.
Generally, northern hemisphere referees are less pliable in their interpretation of the laws, while those in the south, like Bryce Lawrence last week, tend to be more forgiving. The scrum and the tackle area, in particular, were where South Africa damaged the Lions in Durban last weekend and laid the platform for a famous win. Speaking from the team hotel in Johannesburg, Matfield said: "I know there are a few questions about the referee, and there are differences between how referees from the north and south manage the game. But we're confident we can adapt to what he requires.
"As long as the dominant scrum is rewarded, as it was last week, we have no issues." The Lions have overhauled the team, not least in the front row where the Boks reigned supreme last week. Matfield said he expected the Lions to hit even harder, given that this is a must-win match if they are to save the series. He said the inclusion of Simon Shaw, the second-row enforcer, reflected the shift towards physicality.
"He is very good at disrupting the driving maul, which is a weapon we used well last week. That's probably why they brought him in. But what they gain in terms of physicality they lose in the athleticism of Alun-Wyn Jones [who was dropped]." Despite the defeatist talk of Lions fans - the Springboks are outright favourites - Irish centre Brian O'Driscoll was sufficiently encouraged by their form last week to believe that they can upset the odds.
"Some of the rugby played showed some confidence that we can play the game we want to," he said. "We have to bring that out from the kick off because we can't afford to give them a 19-point lead and chase it back. "We probably didn't play early enough last weekend and that was to our detriment. Hopefully we can cut off the Springboks and make them work for their scores a little bit more than we did."
He said the challenge was obvious: "We are out to win Tests two and three - it's as simple as that." The Lions possibly have not made enough of the altitude factor. Dealing with the thin air on the Highveld has confounded travelling teams year after year. The Lions, having consulted scientists and various specialists, opted to fly up to Pretoria late yesterday. John Smit, the South African captain, wasn't so sure of this method. "In all my years with the Sharks [who are based at sea-level], we tried everything, but never quite got it right," he said.
Matfield was more philosophical: "Pierre Spies said it - and I'll reinforce it - altitude and Loftus isn't going to win us this Test. We're going to have to work hard and smart." Lions captain Paul O'Connell, like Matfield, believes the altitude bogey might be overstated. "It is not all in the mind," he said. "There is something there, but it is not massive. "We've done plenty of training at altitude and we have every confidence in the doctors. You have to dig deep when the burn comes on at the end."
He has demanded that his team have a real crack this weekend and up the tempo. "We have to go out and play," he added. "That is when we have been at our best, when we have retained the ball and put it through the hands." Mike Phillips, the fiesty Lions scrum-half, is ready for another physical and verbal confrontation with world champions. Phillips, the Wales No 9, was at his bristling best last Saturday, scoring a try as the Lions staged a stirring late fight-back. He will be a key man again today behind a more muscular pack.
"The South Africans are very confident - they totally believe in their team - and you can't take a backward step against them," he said. "You have got to get in their faces and meet fire with fire. "There was a bit of banter out there last Saturday, but I enjoy the confrontation and the chat. "It just gets me even more up for it, more focused and switched on." Phillips became embroiled in an exchange with Bakkies Botha, the Springbok lock, last week.
"He was going on about my sexy blue eyes, or something - I think he was trying to put me off my game," he said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Showsports 3, 5pm KO