June International Tours

First Lions Test could go either way


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It is ironic that the facet of rugby which could be the clinching of the Test match between South Africa and the British and Irish Lions in Durban on Saturday, is also the most inconsistently refereed.

The Lions have made a big issue about the rucks since the day they arrived in South Africa.

Forward coach Warren Gatland has emphasised the physicality needed at the rucks and it was underlined when loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins said, after the announcement of the Lions team, they realised that they would have to get to the rucks as a unit and clear out the Springboks if they wanted their backs to have good ball.

That, so think those in the know, is where the battle lines will be drawn – and that is where the team which loses the struggle for breakdown ball, will find it hard to build momentum or keep it up.

Jenkins also intimated that the Lions will target Bok captain John Smit. They know a good left shoulder for the tourists will upset the home side where it hurts most.

And added to that, sluggish ball will make it difficult for the Boks’ greatest tactical weapon, Fourie du Preez, to stamp his class on the game. A third factor which could swing the result to the one side or the other will be kicking – for goal and from the hand.

In Stephen Jones the Lions have a relatively conservative flyhalf who is excellent at playing the territorial game. If there is one thing the Lions have done well, it is their homework.

They have seen and studied the Boks’ game plan from last season, with coach Ian McGeechan and team manager Gerald Davies visiting South Africa to watch the Test series against Wales as well as the Tri-Nations Tests.

They will undoubtedly target fullback Frans Steyn – fearless, sometimes hot-headed and without recent experience of the position, he will punish any ill-directed kicks with his long kicks and drops – but conversely he could cost the Boks as his drop goals are more often wayward.

Jones’ goal kicking is also out of the top drawer – and the Boks and the whole of South Africa will hope that Ruan Pienaar, Jones’ direct opponent, has one of his better days with the boot in a kicking career which has not been one of consistency. Pienaar is also rusty after little game time.

He will have to do more than he did for the Sharks against the Bulls to put his stamp on the game and, in particular, he will have to be accurate in his tactical kicking.

The Lions, in Lee Byrne, Tommy Bower and Ugo Monye, have a terrible trio who will exploit any counter-attack opportunities – as do the Boks with Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen and Steyn.

The Lions, by their own admission, have selected a mobile pack to stretch the bigger South Africans, and a backline of speed and quality. But Gatland on Friday was confident they would also be able to stand up in the tight facets.

It will take 80 minutes of high-class rugby, perfecting the little things and making the right tactical decisions to win this Test – and there are enough factors to make both camps and their supporters feel this is a game they can win.

The Lions have the advantage of six games under their belt; that most of the combinations that played in their two best matches, against the Golden Lions and the Sharks, have been selected and that the Boks have a perceived lack of game time and of playing together of late.

But as Bok captain Smit said on Friday – only the game itself will tell.


South Africa:


Bryan Habana; Ruan Pienaar, Fourie du Preez; Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, Heinrich Brussow; Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha; John Smit (capt), Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira

Replacements: Gurthro Steenkamp, Deon Carstens, Andries Bekker, Danie Rossouw, Ricky Januarie, Jaque Fourie, Morne Steyn.

British and Irish Lions:

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