Lion-taming looks likely

The Springboks are some way off their best but given the poor northern hemisphere performances this November they should dispose of a mediocre British & Irish Lions outfit next June.

Coach Peter de Villiers admitted the showing at Twickenham wasn’t perfect. A result of 42-6 is a one-sided hiding anyway you look at it, but in the context of where the Boks are headed and what they want to achieve, they still fell short of the mark. After three games on tour, the Boks have shown enough to suggest victory in that historic Lions series is likely. Whether that series provides the platform to polish their game ahead of the Tri-Nations, the true barometer given the world rankings of the three sides competing, remains to be seen.

There were encouraging aspects on this end-of-year tour from a Bok perspective, but there were encouraging aspects when considering how poor Wales, Scotland and England fared. You can take nothing away in terms of heart and determination, but when it comes to skill and composure, it’s clear the northern teams just weren’t good enough. The Boks played badly against Wales and Scotland, and even former Lions legends like JPR Williams lamented the fact that the home nations couldn’t put an off-colour Bok side away. Good teams win when they play badly which is a compliment to the Boks, but it says plenty for Wales and Scotland that they failed to win after playing out of their skins at Cardiff and Murrayfield on successive weekends.

South Africa have achieved the desired three from three record, and the Twickenham showing would have handed them significant confidence going into next year. The momentum of three wins abroad against three of the four teams that will comprise the Lions cannot be undervalued, but this tour also exposed a few areas that will require attention ahead of that series.

The John Smit tighthead experiment showed great promise in the Wales game, but the injury to Bismarck du Plessis four minutes into the Scotland fixture disrupted the move. The Boks were impressive at scrum time when battling the Dragons, but the disruption was patent at Murrayfield where Beast Mtawarira, Smit and Brian Mujati took a hammering up front. Jannie du Plessis provided little parity at Twickenham, and given this set-piece will be a great talking point in the build up to the Lions series, it is one area the Boks should take particular care to improve.

Smit may share the tighthead responsibilities with Du Plessis at the Sharks, with the other Du Plessis and the Beast alongside him in the front row. The Test season may only begin next June, but for Smit and the incumbent Bok fatties, the 2009 Super 14 will provide that opportunity to improve at the scrum before they meet Andrew Sheridan and Gethin Jenkins in the Lions series.

Ruan Pienaar’s move to flyhalf was under scrutiny for this tour but it’s again unfortunate that injury denied the premier halfback combination a chance to settle. At the Millennium Stadium, the Boks played conservatively and cleverly in spite of the little possession they received, and at the tactical core Pienaar and Fourie du Preez showed remarkable application and composure. It’s disappointing that Du Preez injured his quad in the build up the Scotland Test, as the pair will not receive another chance to play together until the Lions series.

As an individual, Pienaar produced some wonderful performances in Cardiff and London. The Welsh Test highlighted his superb kicking game and rugby brain while at Twickenham he showed the world why Eddie Jones and Jake White view him as the next Stephen Larkham. He showed great variation at Twickenham and while the Boks scored five tries the coach was right when he said they could have scored more. It is a positive when you consider Pienaar will get better with experience.

For the prospective Lions side, there were individuals who shone against the Boks on this tour. Shane Williams has displaced Bryan Habana as the biggest attacking threat in world rugby. The Wales No 8 Andy Powell impressed with his performance against South Africa and is being talked up as tourist next year. Mike Blair of Scotland is sure to make the side and England’s Paul Sackey and Danny Care showed flashes of brilliance if not only in isolation.

JPR Williams, Jeremy Guscott and Willie John McBride all crowed about the northern sides ahead of Saturday’s clash, and each one of these legends told this website Ian McGeechan’s charges should do the business when they head to South Africa. But really, what have the northern teams done to deserve such backing. A Sanzar side is yet to lose on their respective end-of-year tours, and are yet to lose to northern opposition in 2008. England are in disarray, Wales are competitive but lack the killer instinct, while Ireland and Scotland are similarly a league below their southern counterparts.

The northern nations will be stronger as the Lions, but expect the Boks to improve on these November showings and provide a far stiffer challenge on home soil. Unless McGeechan can work miracles in creating a winning culture in spite of four losing cultures, the Lions will come short against the world champions.