Now the real rugby of the South African tour has arrived. And boy wasn’t it a let down – at least from a Lions point of view.
Saturday saw the British & Irish Lions lose the first test match to the Springboks. I’m not boasting when I say that this what I predicted, because my heart always wanted the Lions to win. The score was 26-21 in the end, with South Africa scoring two tries and the Lions scoring three (Tom Croft got two and Mike Philips the other). South Africa were thoroughly dominant for 60 minutes, with a comeback from the Lions only coming about because of Peter de Villiers’ pre-emptive bench emptying move.
An article in the Irish Times commented that “Sky was about to succeed where David Attenborough had failed for the last 50 years, i.e. acquire footage of springboks hunting down and gobbling lions.” How true.
The team performance was disappointing in general, with only three players playing above average for me – David Wallace, Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll. But all the postmortem talk was of course about the scrum. South Africa dominated, particularly due to the battle between South African loose head Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira and Lion tight head Phil Vickery. I’m not going to bother going into the ins and outs of scrummaging, primarily because as a former back I don’t feel qualified, but also because there’s been enough talk of it already. Reading around the net I did come across two interesting opinions though.
Firstly, Stephen Jones, of the English Times, spoke about whether Phil Vickery was done and dusted. Lest not forget that Vickery is a World Cup winner and a highly experienced prop. But also, the point that Jones raised is that McGeechan is a strong admirer of Vickery, and that we shouldn’t be surprised to see him still included in the next test. Read the full opinion here.
George Hook commented in his video blog that the referee was not at fault with deciding the fall-out in the scrum, making the point that when Adam Jones came on the scrum settled. Which of course implies that Vickery was at fault. Watch his take on things here.
The last mid-week game was played on Tuesday, against the Emerging Springboks, who are the second national team of South Africa. Another Irishman, Ronan O’Gara, was chosen as captain, being the fourth of the tour. The game started off well for the Lions. Keith Earls got a good try, but the weather was awful and the game went quite stale. For most of the game the score stood at 10-6. In the end the Emerging Springboks got a last minute try and conversion to draw the game 13-13.
How much you read into this game is debatable. There is reason to think that O’Gara was taking one last roll of the die, but Jones hasn’t play so badly to warrant being dropped, although he could be kicking better out of hand I think. Also, O’Gara was subbed in the 44th minute, so either that was because of the blood injury to his chin, because the coaches had seen enough of him play, or because they wanted a decent look at James Hook.
This brings us to the next game – undoubtedly the most important game of the tour. Both teams will have been looking back at videos over the week, which will result in two things. Firstly, the scrum will be much more settled. This will either be because the Lions will have worked immensely on it during the week, because Adam Jones is on instead of Vickery, or because the referee will be more attentive. Secondly, the centre partnership of Roberts and O’Driscoll will be far more muted. The two dominated their area of the field last week, but you can be sure that they will not have such an easy time come this weekend.
Another major difference to Saturday will be the loss of Lee Bryne, another to be added to the injury list. He injured his hand and is returning to Wales. The full team line up is here. Notably there are five changes to the starting team – Rees and Jones come into the front row, Shaw replaces the other Jones in second row, Fitzgerald replaces Monye and Kearney is in for Bryne. I can’t fault McGeechan for anything here. The front row was always in doubt after last week. Shaw has played well all tour really, but might weaken the line out come this weekend. In the backs, Byrne and Kearney are nearly equal so very little loss at full back. I wrote last week about how Fitzgerald showed more rugby intelligence on the pitch and deserves his place after a good performance in a poor game on Tuesday.
Final predictions – South Africa to win by 15. I predicted a win by 12 points last week, and if it weren’t for the cockiness of the Springboks coach the difference would have been more than 5 points last week. For this week I think that South Africa will rely a lot on Ruan Pienaar, who played well last week but can be a touch flaky mentally.
As with last week’s test match, the game is on Sky Sports at 2 pm, with coverage starting at 1.
To go off the point a little, is it just me or is it really annoying watching the line ups on Sky? You know, when the players turn towards you, walk a few steps, cross their arms, and say their name and position. I find it a little pretentious and arrogant, but then that’s Sky for you – over hyping everything!