Lions ready to upset Springboks, and bookies, again
The Springboks don’t exactly appear to be shaking in their boots in the wake of the announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad they will face over three tests in June and July — but they weren’t 12 years ago either and we all know what happened then.
Still fresh from their readmission to the international game and wallowing in their status as world champions, the 1997 Springboks were dismissive of Ian McGeechan’s Lions in the early tour games.
Local media could not quite believe that the Lions had rocked up with some props that looked like juniors alongside the giants in green, while the coach’s decision to stiffen his squad with some creaking former rugby league players cut no ice in a country where the 13-man code is virtually unknown.
A 2-1 series defeat later and the hosts were forced to reassess their idea of the Lions and their wily coach, who had also triumphed there as a player in 1974.
Twelve years on and South Africa are again world champions and again huge favourites according to the bookmakers.
But that is the whole point, and the key to why a Lions tour is so exciting — form does not mean a thing because the tourists are a new team. They will form, flower then die in the space of six weeks and 10 games.
McGeechan’s challenge is to ensure that process works as smoothly as possible so that the XV who take to the pitch for the first test in Durban on June 20 are a team, and not just a collection of outstanding individuals.
To help him achieve that goal, McGeechan has surrounded himself with outstanding coaching talent. Warren Gatland took Wales to a grand slam, ably assisted by Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley, and the Kiwi, the English ex-rugby league man and the former Wales scrumhalf are all wearing Lions tracksuits this summer.
Graham Rowntree has been fast-tracked through the English coaching system and his expert scrummaging knowledge will be of the utmost importance as the new units are established, bed down then have to work out how to combat the mighty Springbok pack, all in a matter of weeks.
“We have picked beasts,” Rowntree said this week after the inclusion of the likes of Simon Shaw, Joe Worsley, Jamie Heaslip, Alan Quinlan and captain Paul O’Connell showed that the Lions did not intend to be bullied.
The 1997 series was won largely through a remarkable defensive effort and some stellar goalkicking by Neil Jenkins. McGeechan does not envisage too much change this time. “Shaun Edwards is giving me one day a week to work on attack,” he said.
FILE PHOTO: British Lions flanker Lawrence Dallaglio (L) goes on the charge as he is challenged by South Africa’s Danie van Schalkwyk (R) during the second Test in Durban June 28, 1997. The Lions won the test 18-15, to take the three match series. REUTERS/Peter Andrews