England back row man Joe Worsley can’t forget the first time he played rugby in South Africa – he got hit on the side of the head by an orange.
That was nine years ago during the warm-up before England played the Griquas in Kimberley. Their next outing was against the Springboks in Bloemfontein.
Now that is a game Worsley, who turns 30 later this month, can’t forget either. It was the last time the Springboks were beaten on home soil by a British or Irish team and was a massive occasion for the London Wasps back row man.
His return to Bloemfontein this week with the British & Irish Lions sees him chasing a Test place in the Lions side to meet the world champions later this month. Having played at blindside flanker in the opening tour victory over the Royal XV in Phokeng, he switches to the openside for the clash with the Vodacom Free State Cheetahs.
“That win by England in Bloemfontein was my first big victory away from home. That got the whole ball rolling for what was to follow leading up to the 2003 World Cup,” admitted Worsley.
“I certainly remember that occasion, as I do the one in Kimberely when I got a ‘welcome to South Africa’ orange on the side of my head as we were warming-up. I’ve had a few things thrown at me in my time, but that was the biggest.”
Worsley is expecting another hot reception from the Cheetahs as the Lions try to build on their 10 try massacre of the Golden Lions on Wednesday night.
Head Coach Ian McGeechan has been true to his word by giving everyone a start in the opening three matches by including Donncha O’Callaghan, Luke Fitzgerald and Leigh Halfpenny in the starting line-up. He has also put replacement centre Gordon D’Arcy on the bench.
Paul O’Connell returns to lead the side and there are also first starts for half-backs James Hook and Harry Ellis, front row men Ross Ford and Euan Murray and back rowers Andy Powell and Stephen Ferris.
Worsley played in unimpressive 37-25 opening victory over the Royal XV ansd is banking on being in better shape for his next outing.
“I felt like a Zombie walking around the pitch in that game. I was so tired I could hardly walk,” he said.
“I think it was a combination of hard training, not having played for four weeks and the altitude. Speaking to the players who played on Wednesday night they said it was much easier from a fitness point of view.
“I’m hoping that the game against the Cheetahs will be the polar opposite to last Saturday. I thought I might be asked to play at No 6 and No 7 on the tour and it doesn’t really bother me.
“I know the Cheetahs have a strong back row and the key is to play within the team environment and not to try and go our and do things on your own.”
McGeechan knows from personal experience just how difficult it can be to win in Bloemfontein. He was at outside half for the all conquering Lions in 1974 when they needed a penalty from back row man Stewart McKinney to win 11-9 and keep their unbeaten record intact.
“Any game in Bloemfontein is going to be a hard one. The Cheetahs finished strongly in the Super 14 and did very well in beating the Sharks and the Crusaders,” said McGeechan..
“They also pushed the Bulls hard and there are some very good players in their side. They are minus a few, but they still have a few Springboks in their ranks.
“We are settled now and the players are all keen to put on the Lions jersey and get a start The more they train together the better their understanding of each other and how we want to play.
“We have to keep things in perspective – there are things we have to become better at. Wednesday has given us some excitement about what we are doing and it has given us some belief. But that is going to be challenged this weekend and through the rest of the tour.”