What a shame that British & Irish Lions tours have been condensed and watered down to just a rump of what they should be. It used to be a four test full blown tour encompassing all the decent provincial sides and some lesser mid week opposition, with all home international players allowed to participate.
This provided the touring side with an opportunity to build up some test combinations and importantly, give the rabid Yarpie fans a decent rugby spectacle all around the Republic. Times have changed in the professional era, for the worse in this case. Here we are with a week of the tour to go and what have we seen to date? Apart from the excitement of the test last weekend and maybe a couple of other decent games, the fans have had bugger all to cheer about.
There are 20,000 odd Brits in South Africa for this tour and they’d probably be feeling a bit dudded. Sure, they’ve won most of the non test games and the pubs would be getting a fair old workout, but by selecting provincial teams minus their test players SARU have engaged in a pathetic cop-out. It’s no wonder there was nobody in the stands to watch. Ah well, as long as they’re getting their dosh from the worldwide television networks who gives a shit! They’ve squandered another terrific opportunity to market the best of our rugby product. Bigger than the World Cup? Not a chance, but certainly it ‘couldabeen’ a whole lot better.
Back to the main game. The hard facts of life for the Lions is that this weekend, in order for them to save their tour, they need to match the Bokkies physicality in the forwards. This would provide a far better platform for their exciting backs than they had last week. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that the Lions backline is their strength, and you play to your strengths. With the team that they announce later today, I’m expecting maybe only a couple of changes to the backs. Kearney in on the wing for Monye, who’ll pay the price for his mistakes, and either RO’G or Hook in at five eighth. The conditions on Tuesday precluded either of them from shining too brightly in the draw against the Emerging Boks. But the mail is that Steven Jones is going to get the flick. Hopefully Lee Byrne will regain fitness to retain his fullback position. He’s too classy a player to do without. If not, Kearney would probably be the best option with Fitzgerald on the wing.
In the forwards, Geechs has a bit of a problem. The kilted kangaroo, Nathan Hines, was suspended for a week due to some skulduggery the other night. This is a shame because I think he needs to be there to offer some aggressive resistance i.e. bring back the biff, to Bakkies and Victor (‘you’re a very unattractive man’). I’m not suggesting the ’99 call would be dusted off, but the bush boy is probably the best guy to put a bit of pressure on this Bokkie tight five e.g. sink the Bismarck. If his ‘porridge’ can’t be successfully appealed, I’d suggest Simon Shaw might be the man to replace A-W ‘Corporal’ Jones.
Goodbye Phil Vickery and enjoy your retirement – what a beastly way to go! The Hair Bear and Matthew Rees are the obvious replacements for him and Mears, who is another for the chop. I don’t think they’ll change any of the other forwards. Martyn Williams is an obvious replacement for Wallace, but he’s held in pretty high regard and has a good workrate, so he may just hold on. It doesn’t look like Powell is up to this class so Heaslip may also stay. Sheridan is making a miraculous recovery from his dodgy back so could end up on the bench.
The hitout last week was just what the doctor ordered for the Boks. They looked a bit rusty but boy, didn’t they do a number on the Lions forwards. Does that mean that this week they’ll be even better? You’d probably think so but the Lions may have something to say about that. Schalk Burger has returned to the side, which is a shame for Brussow who had a terrific debut. The only other change is on the bench with Chilliboy replacing Steenkamp.
The Boks will be looking at continuing their scrum, lineout and breakdown domination. The tight five were outstanding with the front row turning in a vintage performance. I’d like to see them use their talented backs a bit more and challenge the Lions on the fringes. JP Pietersen and Habana need the same sort of opportunity that Moyne was given. And what’s the bet we don’t see the coach substitute any players until very late in the match? This game in Pretoria has the potential to be a classic test match. Lets hope it lives up to this billing because it will be the only chance the Lions have at redemption.
Expected Lions XV: L Byrne, T Bowe, B O’Driscoll, J Roberts, R Kearney, R O’Gara/J Hook, M Phillips; G Jenkins, M Rees, A Jones, S Shaw, P O’Connell (capt), T Croft, D Wallace, J Heaslip.
Springbok XV:F Steyn, JP Pietersen, A Jacobs, J de Villiers, B Habana, R Pienaar, F du Preez; P Spies, J Smith, S Burger, V Matfield, B Botha, J Smit (capt), B du Plessis, T Mtawarira
Update: British and Irish Lions test team announced 25/6/09 12.30pm
15. Rob Kearney (Leinster / Ireland) 14. Tommy Bowe (Ospreys / Ireland) 13. Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster / Ireland) 12. Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues / Wales) 11. Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster / Ireland) 10. Stephen Jones (Scarlets / Wales) 9. Mike Phillips (Ospreys / Wales) 8. Jamie Heaslip (Leinster / Ireland) 7. David Wallace (Munster / Ireland) 6. Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers / England) 5. Paul O’Connell (Munster / Ireland) Captain 4. Simon Shaw (London Wasps / England) 3. Adam Jones (Ospreys / Wales) 2. Matthew Rees (Scarlets / Wales) 1. Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues/Wales)
Replacements: 16. Ross Ford (Edinburgh / Scotland) 17. Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks /England) 18. Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys / Wales) 19. Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues/Wales) 20. Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers/England) 21. Ronan O’Gara (Munster/Ireland) 22. Shane Williams (Ospreys / Wales)
Comment: As predicted, the selectors haven’t made wholesale changes to the starting XV, restricting it to a fairly conservative five. The Hair Bear and Rees get a run-on guernsey in the front row, no doubt due to their settling performance when they came on last week, and Simon Shaw at lock. With Hines suspended, he was the logical choice. They’ve surprisingly kept Stephen Jones but obviously think he’s the better backline general. Byrne is replaced by Kearney (it’s not known if he is still injured) at fullback and Fitzgerald moves into wing for an out of sorts Monye.
Williams, Ellis and O’Gara are the only bench players left from the First test. It actually looks like a pretty solid reserve unit with Ford the only surprise. Hook is probably the unlucky one.
They’ll be fighting for their life on Saturday and there’s a chance they may get up, but it’ll have to be a mammoth effort to beat that Bokkie pack.