belfasttelegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Whitewash may kill the Lions

Paul O'Connell will lead the British and Irish Lions into battle in the First Test against South Africa today and the tourists will need all his experience if they are to get off to a winning start

It has been seven years, 11 months and 21 days since the Lions last won a Test match.

That was on the 2001 tour to Australia and since that memorable night at the Gabba, the peculiar complexities involved in moulding four nationalities into a cohesive unit over a short period of time have been exposed — by the Wallabies in the remaining two Tests on that expedition and by the All Blacks, horrifically, four years later.

If South Africa whitewash the Lions in the Test series that kicks off today in Durban (and the bookies are only offering 5/4 on it), the viability of Lions tours, for a sport obsessed by the four-year cycles between World Cups, will be up for serious debate.

Of course, it will ultimately come down to revenue. In spite of the economic slide and the harrowing memories of the last tour, the fans are out in force once more, placing their faith in Ian McGeechan restoring the values that characterised successful Lions tours.

The media are swarming here also, but watch what happens if the Lions get well beaten this afternoon.

That would mean travelling to the high veldt for the remaining Tests with no realistic hopes of success.

Tennis, golf, football transfer speculation and in Ireland, the GAA championships, will then bury the Lions coverage and supporters will wonder why they spent so much money to follow a team of losers.

If this series leaves the media and fans doubting whether they should bother following the Lions to Australia in 2013, the game is up. So, a lot riding on today's match, then.

Victory will send the Lions to Pretoria with confidence and belief, defeat would see the tour quickly unravel as the Springboks will go up a level, in every sense, once they have this match under their belts.

Durban at sea-level was always the Lions most realistic shot at victory and while injuries — notably to Jerry Flannery and Stephen Ferris — have disrupted their progress, certain factors have worked in their favour, harking back to 1997 when the Springboks were also world champions, but managed to throw away the Test series.

For all their protestations to the contrary, the Boks are under-prepared.

They have done plenty of training, but that is no substitute for competitive match-time while the Lions, admittedly against opponents of varying quality, had six matches to get their act together with every member of today's starting XV playing two of those.

Selection-wise, there are a few areas the Lions could potentially exploit. John Smit is an admirable leader, but a makeshift tight-head prop and must be targeted.

Ruan Pienaar is a fine footballer, but he has just recovered from injury and has switched between scrum-half, out-half and full-back throughout his career.

Pienaar is a running 10 like his 1997 predecessor Henry Honniball, who can testify from that experience, that out-half is a position where a player, however talented, can be exposed.

At full-back, Francois Steyn carries the dreaded 'mercurial' tag — in other words, coaches pick him and hope they get him on a day when he puts his undoubted gifts to productive use.

He has not been in good form this year and is another player who has flitted along the backline. Steyn can be rattled.

Centre Adi Jacobs has also had injury problems and the majority of South Africa's pundits, including former coach Nick Mallett, believe it was a mistake not to go with Jacques Fourie against the proven game-changing abilities of Brian O'Driscoll.

And, just as in 1997, the Boks rather arrogantly go in to this match without a recognised place-kicker.

Pienaar will take the shorter kicks, Steyn will line up those over 45 metres, but neither is considered a guaranteed points-accumulator.

However, the Lions have their own issues. Having just four weeks to prepare a Test team carries obvious difficulties and hence the desire of the coaching staff, in as much as was possible, to go with combinations in key areas.

It means Stephen Jones partners Mike Phillips at half-back, but the Welsh No 10 has not been convincing in the Six Nations or on this tour.

Ronan O'Gara had his patchy moments during Ireland's Grand Slam odyssey, but was on hand to steer them over the line and has been impressive in this three outings here.

O'Gara is also the more dependable place-kicker and game manager.

He can come off the bench should the situation require.

Forwards coach Warren Gatland also admitted yesterday that the Lions have gone for mobility over grunt in the back by picking Alun-Wyn Jones and Tom Croft in the back five.

“We're hoping to move their pack around a bit, play through the phases and make life difficult for their front five,” said Gatland.

It is a good plan, but the Boks pack can use their greater bulk to boss the tourists, while their back-row has a potent blend of muscle and mobility.

The Lions will look to dominate the scrum, achieve at least parity on the lineout and neuter the threat of Heinrich Brussow at the breakdown.

Out wide, we can expect a lot of kick-chase from the back three while exploiting the flourishing midfield partnership of Jamie Roberts and O'Driscoll looks the right way to go.

The Lions have admitted they have not shown their full-hand in the warm-up games and this presents the possibility of backline innovation and crucially, repeated use of the maul.

Effective mauling can frustrate the home side while reducing the threat of Brussow and has the useful tendency of forcing the defending team to concede penalties, which is where Jones (and O'Gara) come in.

South Africa are deserved favourites for, despite the question marks outlined above, the majority of their team is well established and made up of men who won a World Cup together, but if the Lions can target South Africa's vulnerable areas and maximise their own abilities, McGeechan's men have the capacity to sneak victory.

Verdict: Lions

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