The Pretoria Bulls' comprehensive eight tries to two victory in the Super 14 final on Saturday sent a raft of warning messages for the British & Irish Lions, who opened their tour of South Africa with a limp victory earlier on the same day against a pick-up side. Only about 14,000 people watched that tour opener while a capacity crowd of 52,000 watched the Bulls destroy the Waikato Chiefs 61-17 in a final which was played at an exhausting pace with ferocious tackling and counter-rucking from the South Africans, who thundered to their second title in three seasons.
The Chiefs opened a chapter of hope by scoring the first try in the final before they were trampled by a Bulls side who played with an extra venom encouraged by their exultant fans. The Bulls applied the heat in the line-outs where Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha were masterful. Rampant No 8 Pierre Spies was hugely impressive in the loose while winger Bryan Habana was in lethal form. Enterprising midfielder Wynand Olivier was chosen as man-of-the-match but that honour could have been awarded to the Bulls half-back Fourie du Preez.
He is one of those players who seems to have so much time when he has the ball, he appears to mesmerize defenders as he works through his repertoire in attack while his organisation and cover defence is top class. Du Preez is the best half-back in world rugby by some margin and will be a huge weapon for the Springboks in their Test series with the Lions. With the Super 14 series finished for another year and the celebrations probably still reverberating through Pretoria, attention will switch to the international landscape.
For the next couple of months the Tri Nations will avoid each other while they host their northern hemisphere rivals. The Springboks will tangle with the Lions, while the All Blacks and Wallabies will begin their international campaigns against France and Italy. It is difficult to see those sides from north of the equator claiming more than a couple of wins between them. They play rugby at a much slower clip than their hosts and are far less enterprising than their Tri Nations opponents.
However the law changes which come into play from the start of this month will assist those northern sides like the Lions. Free kicks will be replaced by penalties and the game will become slower and tilted towards the set-piece work at scrums and line-outs. That will suit the Lions who have brought the components to try and drill the Springboks at the set-piece. It will not have escaped the Lions coaching staff that while the Bulls were a dominant, classy team, they were a shade wobbly in the scrums in the Super 14 decider.
The breakdown will be the other crucial area in the series. The rule has changed to allow the tackler, and only him, to forage for the ball with his hands while a ruck forms around him. Flankers with extra speed and skill will become even more valuable at the breakdown, and everyone from full-back to prop will need to brush up on their techniques at the tackle. Men like Richie McCaw, Schalk Burger and George Smith have ruled the breakdowns in the south for some time and the question will be whether the Lions have someone to compare with that trio.
The All Blacks will begin their June internationals without a core of their test regulars. McCaw has damaged a knee, Daniel Carter is still recuperating from Achilles tendon surgery, Sitiveni Sivivatu has shoulder problems, Rodney So'oialo has been left out and Ali Williams is working his way back to full health after ankle damage. Others like wing Joe Rokocoko and flanker Jerome Kaino have been chosen on reputation rather than any production in this year's Super series.
It is a large chunk of experience on the sidelines or in spluttering form and if France were to show their best work they might fancy repeating the form which saw them upsetting the All Blacks the last time the sides met in the 2007 World Cup quarterfinal. The Wallabies are still feeling their way under new coach Robbie Deans but he has demanded and promised there will be improvements this season. They have less depth than their Tri Nations colleagues but they can summon a side of great calibre if fortune favours them with injuries.
The captain Stirling Mortlock is a champion in midfield, Lote Tuqiri can be dynamic on the wing, Matt Giteau is the best fly-half in the series, Smith is pure class, Rocky Elsom has improved out of the sight and so has the once-wobbly Australian scrum. While the Wallabies and All Blacks will get into action first this month, the contests in South Africa will whet the interest most. The Lions won the series there 12 years ago but their task this time appears far more difficult against the World Cup holders.
The Bulls and Sharks will fill most of the Springbok vacancies. Only a few, like flankers Juan Smit and Burger and midfielder Jean de Villiers, play their rugby outside those two franchises. Blending the two powerful provincial rivals into one united side and satisfying those who demand a quota of coloured players will be just two of the tricky issues facing the Springbok selection and coaching panel.
But skipper John Smit at tight-head prop and hooker Bismarck du Plessis will stiffen the scrum while other Natal Sharks, like Francois Steyn, JP Pietersen, Ryan Kankowski and Ruan Pienaar, will increase the national resources. Coach Ian McGeechan is on his farewell Lions tour. He is a great ambassador for the sport, he has wrung some great results from the Lions as a player and coach but he will have to work some extraordinary magic this time if the tourists are to win the Test series.