South Africa will get first sight of one of Ian McGeechan’s juggernaut packs in Phokeng on Saturday as the wily Scot unveils his plans for the British & Irish Lions to maul the Springboks to death.
The smile on the face of Lions skipper Paul O’Connell this week as forwards coach Warren Gatland reintroduced the maul to his players was as broad as it was long.
Munstermen love to maul and their grip on the Heineken Cup might well have been loosened as a result of the ELVs that permitted teams to collapse the driving maul.
But now it is back and McGeechan has picked a set of forwards with an average weight of 18 stones per man to open the tourists’ account against the combined Royal XV.
“If you think this is a big pack you should see the other one we had in training,” quipped McGeechan at the team announcement press conference.
There are plenty of big men to follow in the giant-sized footprints of the first pack on tour and players like Gethin Jenkins, Euan Murray, Donncha O’Callaghan, Ross Ford and Phil Vickery are all set to be unleashed against the Golden Lions at Coca Cola Park on Wednesday night.
“Everyone will have got onto the field by the end of the second game and everyone will have had a start by the third fixture,” said McGeechan.
So, what can he expect from the first game? Nerves, a bit of rustiness, but also a huge desire from his players to combine well together and push their credentials for a test place.
“There has been a lot of preparation over the last 12 months and a lot of work with the squad over the past two weeks. Now we want to learn from games we are playing,” said McGeechan.
““We wanted to see players who haven’t played much before at this level. We are looking at combinations over the first six games before we get into the Test series.
“We know a little bit about the Griquas, who won the Vodacom Cup and provide 11 players to the Royal XV, but we are concentrating on how we want to play. That has been our main focus this week.
“I still get nervous before games and this will be no exception. I’m sure it will be the same for all the players, even Paul O’Connell, because this is a new Lions jersey they are playing for.
“The tour really comes alive when the players gather and after Saturday the games will come thick and fast.”
The Lions have had little trouble in winning their opening fixtures on recent tours. They ran in six tires in 2005 in a 34-20 win over the Bay of Plenty, there were 18 tries plus 26 points from Ronan O’Gara in the 116-10 opening triumph against Western Australia in 2001 and a comfortable 39-11 win over an Eastern Province Invitation XV in 1997.
In fact, you have to go back to 1971 for the last time the Lions lost their opening fixture, against Queensland in Brisbane. There have been only four occasions in 27 Lions tours when the first game has ended in defeat, although three of those have taken place in South Africa.
Don’t expect an upset, but look forward to a strong indication of how McGeechan and his coaching team intend to beat the mighty Boks.
Here’s how and when the Lions have lost their opening tour fixture…
July 9, 1903 Western Province Country 13 Lions 7 in Cape Town, South Africa
July 12, 1924 Western Province Town and Country 7 Lions 6 in Cape Town
June 22, 1955 Western Transvaal 9 Lions 6 in Potchefstroom, South Africa
May 12, 1971 Queensland 15 Lions 11 in Brisbane, Australia
A reminder of Saturday’s teams
Lions: Lee Byrne, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Jamie Roberts, Shane Williams, Ronan O’Gara, Mike Blair; Andrew Sheridan, Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Simon Shaw, Paul O’Connell (captain), Joe Worsley, Martyn Williams, Andy Powell
Replacements: Lee Mears, Phil Vickery, Alun-Wyn Jones, Stephen Ferris, Mike Phillips, Riki Flutey, Stephen Jones
Royal XV: Russell Jeacocks (Leopards), Egon Seconds (Griquas), Deon van Rensburg (Leopards), Hanno Coetzee (Griquas), Bjorn Basson (Griquas), Naas Olivier (Griquas), Sarel Pretorius (Griquas); Jonathan Makoena (Griquas), Devon Raubenheimer (Griquas), Wilhelm Koch (Leopards, captain), Jacques Lombard (Griquas), Rudi Mathee (Leopards), Bees Roux (Griquas), Rayno Barnes (Griquas), Albertus Buckle (Griquas)
Replacements: Pellow van der Westhuizen (Leopards), Stef Roberts (Griquas), Rynard Landman (Leopards), RW Kember (Leopards), Jacques Coetzee (Pumas), Riaan Viljoen (Griquas), Jovan Bowles (Bulldogs)