Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Peter Bills: Passing this first Test absolutely crucial for Lions

In a short three-match Test series, it is essential to get off to a winning start. The road back will look uphill and decidedly difficult for the loser at the ABSA Stadium this afternoon.

Statistics merely confirm this point. This will be the 13th series played between the Springboks and Lions in South Africa and the side that won the first Test has gone on to take the series nine times previously.

The 1891, 1896, 1974 and 1997 Lions all won the first Test and then the series, while the Springboks did the same in 1910, 1924, 1938, 1968 and 1980. The odd years out were 1903 and 1962, when the first games were drawn, and 1955.

In both 1903 and 1962 the Springboks went on to clinch the series while in 1955 the Lions triumphed in Johannesburg before sharing the series 2-2. From the Lions point of view, it seems almost impossible that they could afford to lose today and yet finish 2-1 series winners. That’s because the last two Tests are both at altitude — Pretoria which is 5,000 feet above sea level, next Saturday, and Johannesburg, even higher at 6,000 feet, on July 4.

Desperately few visiting teams manage to win at either venue. As that great Lion Willie John McBride has said: “Winning the last Test of any series is especially difficult. The visiting side only very rarely manages to do that. These Lions will be tired, at the end of a long season and inevitably looking to get home. We were, in 1974. It was a pity we couldn’t finish the job that year by winning the last Test. It would have meant we won every single game on that tour. But in the end, we couldn’t quite do it. We had to settle for a draw.”

Right now, I reckon Ian McGeechan’s 2009 Lions would settle for a draw in Johannesburg on July 4 . . . as long as they have won the First Test. Everything comes down to today’s opening encounter.

This match will be only the fourth Test between the Springboks and the Lions in Durban and Paul O'Connell's men will be looking to make it 2-2. The Boks were 7-3 winners in 1924 and then triumphed 3-0 in 1962.

Martin Johnson's side clinched the series at King's Park, now the ABSA Stadium, in 1997 when they won the second Test 18-15. Five penalties from the boot of Neil Jenkins and a drop goal from Jeremy Guscott clinched a famous victory — and series triumph.

But here’s another thought about this series. Might not one of the Lions’ earlier provincial games have been better used as a fourth Test match? All the provincial games on this trip have been devalued by the locals putting out weakened teams. What is the point of the Lions playing those second-rate sides? The stadiums have been half empty, a sure sign of disinterest. But a fourth Test match would inevitably be sold out. It’s a thought for the future . . .

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