The British & Irish Lions may have won all six games on their tour of South Africa, but none of these have truly mattered.
Game ready Lions lie in wait for Boks
DURBAN // The British & Irish Lions may have won all six games on their tour of South Africa, but none of these have truly mattered. Their first real challenge comes today when they play the world champions Springboks. The Lions have plundered their way through the republic, but with few exceptions the resistance has been limited. In South Africa they will encounter a team who are experienced, bloody-minded and determined to shake off the legacy of 1997 when the Lions ambushed the Boks.
"For a lot of guys this is like the World Cup," says the South African captain John Smit. "I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't scared of failing. You have to understand how fine the line is between a lifetime of regret and having an enduring memory of success in a Lions series." Thanks to the arrival of thousands of British and Irish visitors, Durban is awash in a sea of bright red - as King's Park will be for a match that represents the visitors' best chance of winning.
"I think the Boks will be shocked by the passion of the Lions," predicted Jeremy Guscott, whose dropped goal in 1997 ensured the Lions a famous series win. "I believe the Lions will win in Durban. After that, I'm less sure." Two factors count in the Lions' favour: many Boks have been carrying injuries and will not be game sharp, plus most visiting teams perform best at sea level where it's easier to breathe. With the next two Tests on the lung-bursting Highveld, the balance of power will shift to the Boks.
Jean de Villiers and Ruan Pienaar have both been injured, but it is Pienaar's selection that worries most. He possesses great flair and a maverick instinct, but he is a retreaded scrum-half who has not had game time in five weeks. What's more, he has only had 10 kicks at goal this season. The Springbok bench - with Ricky Januarie and Jaque Fourie - have played little recent rugby. Ever since Heinrich Brussow's selection in place of the injured Schalk Burger, the focus has been on the breakdown; one area which the Lions have struggled to come to terms with. Part of the phoney war has inevitably involved the Lions accusing South African teams of cheating at the tackle point.
Ian McGeechan disingenuously claimed the choice of Brussow was a compliment to the Lions' efforts at the breakdowns. "It shows they think we will be effective at the breakdown and therefore they had to bring him in." The Boks, perhaps mindful of the power of the Lions pack, have sent out word that their technique is illegal and they will have a word with referee Bryce Lawrence. Put the complaints down to the psychological warfare that characterises every major Test match.
McGeechan has lauded the Boks as the best team in the world, particularly their versatile nature which allows them to vary their play between "strength and power and subtlety and speed". As ever, he backs his team. It's game on. All signs point to it being very special. firstname.lastname@example.org 5pm, ShowSports 3