Testing times

The Lions are back in Test action this weekend and the British, Irish and South African press have had plenty to say about their chances of success. [more]

Testing times

The Lions are back in Test action this weekend and the British, Irish and South African press have had plenty to say about their chances of success.

Speculation as to who would be representing the four Home Unions in their first international on South African soil for 12 years finally came to an end when Ian McGeechan named his matchday 22 on Thursday but that hasn’t stopped the media from giving their own opinions on who should and shouldn’t be playing in Durban this Saturday.

Here’s what a portion of the rugby press had to say about Lions, Springboks and a lack of selection surprises…

Peter Bills in the Independent

In the end, for all the talk of 36 players with an equal chance of earning a Test match place, the Lions’ selection for the 1st Test against South Africa in Durban on Saturday bore few surprises.
There is a reason for that – nowhere near all 36 players ever had the talent to make the Test side. Thus, it became predictable at least two weeks ago what sort of team the Lions would choose to confront the world champions. Truth is, they had few real class alternatives to the players chosen for the starting XV.
The class of 2009 is thinly stretched in terms of resources when it comes to genuine world class talent. The acid test, painful yet always appropriate, is how many would be sure to get into a current World XV? The brutal answer is one, Brian O’Driscoll.
Yet having accepted the limitations of these Lions and especially those outside the top 15 – the uneven, unconvincing results against many of the below strength provincial sides in the build-up to this 1st Test has merely underlined that truth – there is now a golden opportunity for some of the chosen 15 to kick on and make their names as genuine world class talents.
If this is a team hardly oozing world class, it is undeniably one with a strong bond, a common cause that coach Ian McGeechan and his assistants have worked hard on creating. Now comes the chance for the individuals to make their name.

Google Ad Manager – In Article

In 1997, you couldn’t pretend the Lions began the Test series with a side stuffed full of legends. But on that tour, myriad players – the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Neil Back and Matt Dawson – seized the opportunity to lift their games to another plateau.

Similarly, the likes of Paul Wallace, Jeremy Davidson and Tom Smith played some of the finest rugby of their lives in that 3-match Test series. Their ability to lift their game contributed mightily to the overall success of those Lions.
If the 2009 Lions are to have any hope of emulating the success of their 1997 counterparts, a similar number of players must raise their game.

But whatever the position, this Lions side must look ahead with belief. They must work collectively and aspire to great performances. If they do that, who’s to say they won’t give the Springboks something to think about?

Rob Kitson in the Guardian

It is notoriously hard to compare eras but the Lions team named by Ian McGeechan yesterday looks as strong in certain departments as any Test side to represent ¬Britain and Ireland in the past two decades. Not since the days of Jeremy Guscott and Scott Gibbs has there been a more potent midfield threat than Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts and, form-wise, the chosen XV are also richly blessed at prop, No8, scrum-half, wing and full-back.

Even the best sides are only as strong as their weakest links, however, and it is the four Englishmen in a Celtic-dominated starting line-up of six Welshmen and five Irishmen who may just determine the outcome of the pivotal first Test. If Lee Mears instantly locates his jumpers, Phil Vickery keeps the home scrum honest and the fast rising Tom Croft and Ugo Monye respond to the biggest challenge of their lives, there is enough talent at their elbows to make this a series to remember.

Peter Jackson in the Daily Mail

The Lions named the chosen few yesterday secure in the knowledge that they have the ammunition to pick the fancied Springboks off their pedestal here tomorrow.

Skipper Paul O’Connell revealed the seismic shift of attitude within the camp towards the three-Test series in two telling sentences.

‘We definitely have enough shots in our locker to do it,’ he said. ‘We have fabulous players in every position, great pace in the back row, great pace in the backs, a good scrummaging front five who are very fit – and we know how we want to play.’
Some of those granted the rare privilege of being considered good enough to put the plan into practice have been drawn from widely contrasting backgrounds and cultures.

Head coach Ian McGeechan probably had the Springboks in mind when he said: ‘Unless you’ve been in a Lions Test before, nothing prepares you for it. You are in for something you have never experienced before.’

In their different accents, the Test players all articulate the same belief – that the supposed mismatch is about to turn into one of the great duels.

Gavin Mairs in the Daily Telegraph

Where do you start? For the Lions to win this match, they will have to edge so many mini contests across the pitch and nail every opportunity that comes their way. Given the importance of the breakdown however, the battle between David Wallace and Heinrick Brussow for the ball on the floor will be absolutely crucial. Brussow is the ultimate groundhog, in a fashion similar to Richie McCaw, and Wallace’s job will be to use his physicality to smash his opposite number off the ball before he gets a chance to steal it. 

The Springboks have selected wisely, bringing in Frans Steyn at full-back where his huge boot can pin the Lions back if the tourists kick poorly for territory. Brussow has also changed the dynamic of their back row to pose the Lions questions they probably didn’t expect when they arrived in South Africa. 

While Stephen Ferris will be sorely missed, McGeechan has picked a back row that is fast and athletic and that will suit their style as it should be based upon the patterns run by Wasps and Wales in which quickly recycled ball is crucial to their success. Instead of confronting the Boks front on, expect the Lions to try to shift them around the park and aim to exploit any lack of match fitness. 

Chris Hewett in the Independent

The British & Irish Lions know they will face a physical examination of the most severe intensity when they meet the Springboks on the shores of the Indian Ocean tomorrow, but they also believe they can set the terms of the engagement.

Ian McGeechan, the head coach, has placed his faith in the most mobile forward pack available to him in the hope of forcing the under-prepared South Africans into areas of the field they would rather not visit. If it works, his reputation as one of the game’s great strategists will be forged anew.

Gethin Jenkins rather than Andrew Sheridan, Phil Vickery rather than Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones rather than Simon Shaw, Tom Croft rather than Joe Worsley – in each case, the Lions have gone for the faster man, irrespective of feet and inches, pounds and ounces. There are echoes of the triumphant 1997 tour of this country, when Tom Smith and Paul Wallace, the two "pocket props", made such an impact on the Test series. McGeechan was also in charge then, as it happens.

Renowned for throwing the odd selectorial curve ball ahead of the big occasion, McGeechan’s surprise yesterday was the absence of a surprise. All the hot favourites duly appeared on the team sheet, and in the few positions of serious debate, the decisions went to the marginal front-runners. Hence the choice of David Wallace at open-side flanker ahead of Martyn Williams.

Gavin Rich for Super Sport

It might sound a bit of an over-simplification, but Saturday’s first test between the Springboks and the British and Irish Lions can easily be couched as one between the home players and the visiting coaching staff. 

The bulk of the Springbok team that will play in the game at the Absa Stadium in Durban were part of the squad that won the World Cup. The only exceptions are centre Adrian Jacobs, openside flank Heinrich Brussow and loosehead prop Beast Mtwarira. Jean de Villiers was injured in the first game, but he was part of the squad, and was back to share in the celebrations after the final and earned himself a medal. 

The Boks, mainly because of the selection policy of previous Bok coach Jake White, have built up an impessive collection of test caps – 707 to be precise. And like we said before the Super 14 semi finals and final, when it was the Bulls who were involved, it is the hosts who definitely have the advantage in special players. 

Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield are probably the best lock pairing in world rugby, Juan Smith must be close to the best blindside flank, Pierre Spies has massive potential, Fourie du Preez is the best scrum-half and Jean de Villiers can’t be far away from being the top No 12. Bryan Habana was a best player in the world a few years back. John Smit is arguably the world’s best captain at the moment, with only Richie McCaw to challenge him for that accolade. 

But while the Boks have a massive advantage on the field, rugby is a cerebral business as well as a physical one. In this regard, the intellectual capital built up over the years by the experienced core of this Bok team, the playing leadership, is going to be a massive factor against a Lions coaching group that significantly outweighs their counterparts in the South African dug-out in terms of experience and achievement. 

Ian McGeechan is an experienced coach who has won in South Africa before, and no-one who listens to him talk at a press conference can fail to be impressed by his calm sense of certainty. Warren Gatland, his assistant, has won countless trophies with British clubs, one Air New Zealand Cup, and he also has a Six Nations title with Wales to his credit. 

The nagging feeling ahead of this series from a South African viewpoint has always been that it is theirs to lose. In other words, they have the players to beat the Lions, but they could drop the ball because of selection or strategy mistakes.

Previous story Alun-Wyn prepared for South African tussle
Next story Wallace keeping it in the family