x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Sharks should find McGeechan's men hard to live with

Plumtree disappointed the Springbok coach will not release players for provincial games.

John Plumtree, the New Zealander, will be the toast of Natal if he manages to lead the province to victory over the touring British & Irish Lions in Durban tonight.
John Plumtree, the New Zealander, will be the toast of Natal if he manages to lead the province to victory over the touring British & Irish Lions in Durban tonight.

The Living With Lions DVD is considered a must have in the collection of any rugby connoisseur. It is a compelling behind-the-scenes documentary charting the British and Irish Lions momentous and epic tour of South Africa in 1997. It is considered one of the best sports films ever produced, providing a fascinating look at the dynamics, attention to detail, camaraderie and passion that makes a Lions tour such a unique sporting event.

It is fair to say, however, that you would not find too many copies of the footage in the homes of Springbok fans. The 2-1 series defeat at the hands of Ian McGeechan's side rocked South Africa and still rankles with the rugby-mad Rainbow Nation. The class of 2009 will be looking to settle a few scores and gunning for revenge, according to John Plumtree, the coach who will prepare the Natal Sharks for the clash with what looks a near full-strength British Lions XV in Durban tonight.

"A lot of time has passed since that series but people over here don't forget," said Plumtree, a New Zealander who played for Natal for sevens season and has progressed to head coach since joining the coaching Sharks staff in 2006. "There are always reminders of 97. Lions aren't the underdogs like they were for that series and the Springboks will have learned their lessons since. "I don't think there will be too many surprises for them this time and they won't fall into that trap again. But no one knows what they are really about. When Australia and New Zealand come over here everyone knows what they are about. The element of surprise will be nice for the Lions."

An ill-prepared Lions side walked into an All Blacks ambush the last time the famous red jersey was handed out to the cream of the players from the Home Unions in 2005. They were comprehensively out-played by a Dan Carter-inspired New Zealand side and were whitewashed 3-0. One of the few games Clive Woodward's side did manage to win was the midweek clash with a Wellington side coached by Plumtree, who is therefore perfectly placed to assess the Lions' credentials.

"It will be hard to go against the Boks," he said. "I think this time round the Boks will be too tough for them. There will not be much in it though. "I expect it to be a tough series and I certainly hope it's better than the last series in New Zealand which was a waste of time. It really fizzled out badly but I think this group are better organised." The Sharks, who will be the Lions' fourth opponents of the tour, enjoyed a decent Super 14 season, finishing sixth.

They have 10 representatives in the Springboks squad, one of whom, Deon Carstens, has been allowed by Peter De Villiers, the South Africa head coach, to play in this evening's encounter at the Absa Park Stadium. However, De Villiers is likely to wrap Ruan Pienaar, the outrageously gifted Sharks fly-half, in cotton wool ahead of the Test series, which starts on June 20. Pienaar has been plagued by injuries during the Super 14 campaign and his dip in form and fitness has opened the door for Morne Steyn, the drop-goal specialist who led the mesmeric Pretoria Bulls to the title.

"The talk is that Piennar has the 10 shirt sewn up but I'm not so sure," said Plumtree. "He's been battling injuries while Morne has been playing consistently well. "He's developed his game and although he's not as quick as Ruan, he is a good thinker and his kicking game is good. His defence isn't bad either." Overall, Plumtree thinks the Springbok squad is "full of power and speed" but said the selectors missed a trick in not selecting Jannie Du Plessis, the tight-head prop and brother of Bismarck Du Plessis, the No 1 hooker for the Springboks.

The absence of Jannie demonstrates, however, how much faith De Villiers has in Jon Smit, the hooker who has made the conversion from world-class hooker to tight-head prop. "Smit has got a fair bit of experience at tight-head now and he is a better tight-head than he was during the autumn internationals in the northern hemisphere," said Plumtree. "He might surprise a few people how much better he is."

Plumtree also hopes his charges have a few surprises in store for the tourists this evening. "There is always talk of softening them up," he said. "There is talk of doing it, but doing it is another thing. "If the Lions had to play a full-strength Sharks or Bulls side then it would be a different kettle of fish. I wish the Springboks had released some of the players to the provinces and then let us have a real go at the Lions."

kaffleck@thenational.ae