June International Tours

Lions hoping to strike first blow in South Africa

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Like two heavyweight fighters who have been circling each other for weeks, world champion South Africa and the British and Irish Lions finally come face to face on Saturday.


Underdogs and written off by the ultra confident Springbok fans, the Lions will try and match South Africa in terms of power and aggression at Kings Park in the first of three tests which could wind up either a sweep for the home side or a closely contested triumph for the visitor.


“We’ve got fabulous players in every position, great pace in the back row and in the backline and a very fit front five, a very good scrummaging front five,” said Lions lock and captain Paul O’Connell.


“We need things to go our way a little bit. If we put together an 80-minute performance on Saturday there’s no doubt that we can win.”


The Lions, the best that England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales can gather into one team, have played six warmup games and won all of them against provincial lineups admittedly weakened by callups to the South African squad.


The Springboks, by contrast, have stayed in their training camp without a decent warmup game, straining on the leash. The Lions are the reason many of South Africa’s 2007 World Cup-winning side have kept their boots on. But they haven’t played together in seven months.


“Where you’ve played too many games everyone’s going to be worried you’re going to be too fatigued and drained,” said Springboks captain and prop John Smit. “When you’re not playing games everyone’s worried whether you’re going to be up for the game.


“I don’t think we’re short on rugby. We don’t need a hell of a lot of time to get to know each other. The edge will only be determined by what kind of mental attitude is brought by both teams.”


The Lions are hoping for a repeat of their last visit to South Africa 12 years ago. Like now, the South Africans were also the World Cup holders and the unfancied Lions beat them 2-1 after winning the first two tests.


The big common link is head coach Ian McGeechan.


Born in England but capped 32 times by Scotland at flyhalf and center, he was the head coach in ’97 and has the same role now.


This is his seventh Lions tour as a player or coach and he has used his expertise and experience to guide the players through the shortest preparation time in Lions history.


McGeechan broke with the tradition of having the strongest lineup play on Saturdays and the backup side in midweek. Instead, he constantly switched around combinations in his lineups and did not reveal his first test 15 to his players until a few days before the first test.


Saturday’s game will reveal whether that was a mistake.


He has chosen a tall, long-passing scrumhalf in Mike Phillips and a powerfully built center in Jamie Roberts to partner Brian O’Driscoll.


He has opted for Stephen Jones instead of Ronan O’Gara to kick tactically as well as at goal, and will send out a fast back row to try and match the Boks at the breakdown, where they excel.


The Springboks’ lineup selected by coach Peter de Villiers was the one expected.


It is weakened by the absence of powerful, rampaging flanker Schalk Burger, who is forced to miss this test with a calf muscle injury. But that provided Heinrich Brussow, who gave the Lions a torrid game when the Cheetahs lost by only two points in Bloemfontein, a first test start.


“They have peaked together,” McGeechan said of his opponents.


“They are a talented group, a settled coaching team, and they play quite a varied game. They have the strength and the power, the subtlety and the speed so we’re under no illusion as to how good is this team they we’re going to play on Saturday.”


The Boks will also look to their second row powerhouse pair of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha to dominate Paul O’Connell’s pack and set up plenty of possession for their talented backs. T


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