15 May 2009
Jake White, writing in SA Rugby magazine, explains why the Boks mustn’t underestimate the Lions.
The Springboks should beat the British & Irish Lions this year and gain revenge for the Test series defeat in 1997.
The Boks have a settled team with lots of Test caps, a respected captain, and a coach who has been in the job for more than a year (unlike Carel du Plessis, who faced the Lions very early on in his stint).
Fortunately, it seems as if the Boks have learnt from 1997. They will have a very good build-up to this Test series, with a match against a Namibia XV (that could include overseas-based Springbok contenders Butch James and CJ van der Linde) and by the time the Boks arrive in Durban in June for the first Test of this series, they should be more than ready.
In the 1997 series, the Boks scored nine tries to three, but lost because of poor goal kicking. I hope they don’t make the same mistake again. The Boks need a sharpshooter like Percy Montgomery, so that the Lions know if they concede penalties in their own half they will be punished on the scoreboard.
Then there’s the altitude factor. In 1997, the Boks lost both the Tests played at the coast before claiming a convincing victory in the third match at Ellis Park, so I’m glad we will play two Tests on the highveld this time round (the second match at Loftus and the third at Ellis Park). These conditions will suit our quicker players like Pierre Spies and Bryan Habana, while the Lions will have to adapt to the thin air which makes breathing more difficult and allows the ball to go further off the boot.
However, the Boks must not underestimate the Lions like they did in 1997 when the tourists struggled in their earlier tour matches against our provincial sides. They will still have to play to their potential to win the series – the Lions certainly won’t just roll over.
In Ian McGeechan, the Lions have a coach who knows how to win in South Africa. He did it as a player in 1974 and as a coach in 1997, and I’m sure that’s why he got the job again. He’s a great tactician and I know he won’t leave anything to chance.
How well the Lions perform could depend on whether they decide to give the captaincy to Paul O’Connell and not Brian O’Driscoll. History shows that they’ve always posed more of a threat when they’ve had a lock in charge in South Africa – look at Willie John McBride in 1974 and Martin Johnson in 1997.
The Lions will also have to pick a big, physical tight five if they want to compete with their Bok counterparts. Gone are the days when small props like Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan, who came to South Africa in 1974, could make
a big impact at Test level.
I think that McGeechan’s life has been made a lot easier by Ireland somewhat unexpectedly winning the Six Nations. If Wales had defended their title – as many expected them to do – he may have had to include more Welsh players in the squad, especially with Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley in the Lions management team. However, he can now select the best players from each Home Union, with Ireland sure to have good representation.
– Read Jake White’s column every month in SA Rugby magazine