Lions bring knife to gun fight

The British & Irish Lions backline will lack both synergy and potency when they tour South Africa this June.

Stow the screams of ‘Arrogance’. The Lions will tour with a mediocre team and if the Springboks don’t beat them convincingly that would be the greatest shock.

After 12 long years, the Boks have their shot at vengeance. Peter de Villiers and company won’t take their challenge lightly, but South Africa are surely favourites to beat the Lions. They’ll talk up the Lions in the build-up as part of the diplomatic ‘death to the windgat’ approach, but in reality, they should feel confident.

The impending forward battle has been talked up for 18 months, but judging from the Springboks’ performance in the UK last November, they need not worry. Against Wales and Scotland, the Boks under-performed in the scrums and at the breakdown, but still won through. Twickenham witnessed a more complete performance when the Boks thrashed the Poms 42-6.

The Lions side will boast a number of Irish players up front, but given the uninspiring showing in the Six Nations, the Lions pack will be no match for the Boks. The South African fatties will lay the platform, and the backline should flourish.

The kicking game will be crucial, but in Fourie du Preez the Boks possess the best kicking No 9 in the world. Whether De Villliers brings Butch James back or persists with Ruan Pienaar makes little difference in this respect. Both possess accurate tactical boots and are well-equipped in aiding Du Preez in the drive for territory.

It’s unclear whether Lions mentor Ian McGeechan will opt for Stephen Jones or Ronan O’Gara. From a combination viewpoint, Welshman Mike Phillips is best paired with countryman Jones. Phillips is the best option being a robust scrumhalf with a sound boot, and next to Jones he would be expected relieve the pressure ala Fourie du Preez.

The midfield, however, is a bit of lottery.

The Boks are bound to pair Jean de Villiers with either Adi Jacobs or Jaque Fourie. Brian O’Driscoll is a certainty for the Lions, but the key link between 10 and 13 is less predictable. Riki Flutey, a second rate Hurricanes utility, is a risk and Jamie Roberts lacks the guile to be a top class 12. Gordon D’Arcy, a player De Villiers calls the best inside centre on the planet, would have been a better bet alongside O’Driscoll, and with an Irish midfield McGeechan would have done well to start an Irish pivot (O’Gara) at 10. But given D’Arcy’s omission, he may not.

Out wide Shane Williams can punish defenders no matter what happens up front. It’s been well documented, but Williams sat Bryan Habana on his backside last May in Bloemfontein. Williams’s outrageous surge and step was too good for Habana, and the Bok winger’s subsequent expression of confusion said it all. Williams is a gifted player capable of bamboozling the best defence and needs to be nullified.

But Williams is the lone weapon in their arsenal, and against a renowned Bok defence, this won’t be enough. The SA Super 14 teams worry about kicking on Kiwi back-threes that include Lelia Masaga, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Mils Muliaina (Chiefs); Joe Rokocoko, Rudi Wulf and Paul Williams (Blues); Hosea Gear, David Smith and Corey Jane (Hurricanes); Colin Slade, Jared Payne and Leon MacDonald (Crusaders) and even Fetu’u Vanikolo, Ben Smith and Israel Dagg (Highlanders). Apart from Williams, where’s the threat of a Lions’ counter-attack?

The Lions are bringing a knife to a gun fight. They have made selections geared to the physical contest, but have excluded the players capable of the magical. Jonny Wilkinson can win games by himself with that left boot (remember Jeremy Guscott’s decisive drop goal in ’97?) and a guy like D’Arcy or Gavin Henson is also capable of disrupting the best defensive lines. As far as impact players go, Scotland’s Mike Blair would have been ideal off the bench. Harry Ellis is in the squad at his expense, and surely the Boks will speak a silent thank you to the Lions’ selectors.

Some people may view this preview as arrogant, but to put things in context, you have to remember it’s a well-organised world champions unit battling a make-up UK & Ireland team. The Boks did not reach their potential in 2008 but were still good enough to finish the year ranked No 2 in the world. With the Six Nations win, Ireland are the highest ranked home nation at No 4.

United, the Lions are a different prospect, but a united Lions side is still not on par with a united Bok side. South Africa will be wary of the Lions, because of the ’97 loss, but in their heart of hearts will know the coming series is there for the taking.

By Jon Cardinelli