Lions fever will grip South Africa

With just eight months to go until next summer's Lions tour, South African international Marco Wentzel insists that the excitement surrounding the eight-week adventure isn't simply isolated to these isles. [more]

Lions fever will grip South Africa

With just eight months to go until next summer’s Lions tour, South African international Marco Wentzel insists that the excitement surrounding the eight-week adventure isn’t simply isolated to these isles.

Fresh from playing his part in a convincing Heineken Cup win for Leicester Tigers in Italy on Saturday afternoon, Wentzel has no doubt that almost everyone in his home country will be more than aware of the Lions’ impending presence.

"We definitely knew about the Lions," said Wentzel, who was born in George Town and won two caps for the Springboks in 2002.

"We knew about the Lions and the Barbarians but the Lions were much higher profile."

Now 29, Wentzel was just a babe in arms when the Lions toured his home country in 1980 but he has no problems recounting events the last time the Lions visited the Republic.

Ian McGeechan and Martin Johnson led the Lions to an historic series victory 11 years ago during a tour that shocked the South African public as well as their players.  

"I remember Johnno’s first tour in 1997. The Lions were pretty impressive that year, particularly as we had a good side, coming out of winning the ’95 World Cup.

"The Lions went over as underdogs. Because the team gets thrown together and the tour is away from home, you do expect them to struggle, but they did really, really well.

"I was just starting professionally then and I watched most of those games. That tour made a pretty big impression on a lot of us. We also saw the video (Living with Lions) that they made and that was some good stuff in that."

The Lions’ victory in 1997 was front page news in South Africa

Wentzel, who is now in his second season with Leicester having made the move from Italian side Treviso the summer before last, believes the 2009 Lions have a good chance of matching the feat of their 1997 counterparts, even though he admits doing so will not be easy.

"The Lions can expect to play on harder pitches, especially playing in Jo’Burg. The South African crowds do get behind the boys as well as rugby in South Africa is a bit of a passion. It’s a big social thing – I wouldn’t call it a religion but it’s very important to people. The weather will be different too and they’ll be away from home so everything will be against them.

"I think the good thing for the Lions, though, is that the level in the Guinness Premiership is going up each year whereas in South Africa, apart from the Super 14, the level has gone down a bit because of the number of players playing overseas. The players over here are improving year on year. I wouldn’t say they’re falling behind in South Africa but I don’t think the level is as good as it used to be."

Marco Wentzel making a tackle during his time with Italian side Treviso

During his time playing Currie Cup, Super 12 and international rugby in South Africa, Wentzel lined up alongside a number of players expected to make a real impression for the reigning World Champions next summer but he admits that the absence of man in particular could be a real blessing for the tourists.

"I’ve played with most of the senior guys in the Springbok squad, although I haven’t been playing in South Africa for five or six years. For South Africa, it’s a case of who are the next guys for the next World Cup.You’ve got a lot of great senior guys there, guys like Victor Matfield and Butch James, who’s playing great rugby over here.

"I played with Victor at the Bulls under (new Leicester coach) Heyneke Meyer and I think it’s a shame that South Africa have lost Heyneke. I think they could really have used a guy like him for the future of South African rugby. It’s a loss for Springbok rugby but it’s definitely a win for us here at the Tigers."

Wentzel may not be directly involved in the action in nine months time, but he will be keeping a close eye on proceedings, especially as there is likely to be some substantial banter flying around Welford Road during and after the tour. A number of his Leicester team-mates may well be wearing Lions colours but Wentzel’s loyalty will lie with his countrymen, meaning he will either be taking or dishing out no end of stick depending on who comes out on top in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg.

"It’s one-nil to me in terms of the banter after the World Cup so I’m pretty happy at this stage. Plus we won the Test cricket but we struggled in the One Day internationals. It goes up and down but they’ll definitely be some banter during the Lions tour!"

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