The con is on

If the first day of the Lions’ tour is any indicator we’re in for a fascinating game of cat and mouse.

If the Springboks really believe the coming series will be decided on talent, they’re in for a rude awakening. The class of ’97 were superior on paper, but were ultimately outplayed both on and off the park by their wilier counterparts.

Don’t underestimate the impact of Ian McGeechan’s guile. Don’t be so arrogant as to think a counter-measure won’t be necessary. Talent alone wasn’t enough to win 12 years ago and it won’t be enough to win next month.

It was great to hear McGeechan talk of the coming Test series. Above the sound of scores of snapping cameras, the Lions coach built up the Boks. He spoke about their fantastic record pre- and post-World Cup and commented on the outstanding management structures.

Paul O’Connell played along, talking up John Smit’s potential as a tighthead prop. Coach and captain made one thing very clear, the Lions are coming to South Africa as underdogs. They’re expected to lose, just like they were in ’97, and all the pressure is on the hosts. They have admitted to some ambition but haven’t gone so far as to say they’ll stuff the Boks.

You wouldn’t expect McGeechan to point out the Boks’ technical deficiencies on his first day in the country just like you wouldn’t expect O’Connell to slam his opposite number – a player who has led his country to Tri-Nations and World Cup glory. You wouldn’t expect that, but then again you wouldn’t expect McGeechan and O’Connell to build the Boks up to such a degree.

It begs the question, just what are they up to? The short answer is plenty.

McGeechan expects the rugby community to believe he’s come out to South Africa without a Test XV in mind. He’d like the Boks to think the Lions are so off the pace that they’re only getting their house in order a mere 26 days before kickoff.

I’m not going to tell them to the pull the other one, I’m just going to tell them to keep going. The more subtle challenges laid down for the Springboks the better. The hosts will be tested between the four white lines but the real test could be for the three men in the Bok coaches’ box.

Peter de Villiers, Gary Gold and Dick Muir are in for the challenge of their lives. Apart from McGeechan, whose own success has been documented ad nauseam, the Lions management possess plenty of experience. The 2008 Six Nations-winning unit of Warren Gatland, Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards all have Test experience to boot. Can the Bok brains trust truly compete?

They’re only a year into the job, but they have the advantage of a champion team. The team is settled, and man for man, the team is better than the Lions. Harsh lessons were learned in 2008 regarding game strategy, but sanity eventually prevailed.

But that’s not enough. McGeechan and co are going to come at the trio with a psychological barrage that’s going to test their resilience and coaching ability. They may ignore this publicly but privately they’ll know their influence could be telling to the final outcome.

They can’t afford to treat this like any old series, because the Lions visit once every 12 years and the tour is second only to the World Cup. They can’t afford to neglect alterations to their game or ignore the Lions’ strength in certain areas, and they can’t ignore all the available information when formulating their own game plan. If they do, they’ll run the risk of embarrassment.

The Boks should still beat the Lions 3-0. Like the 2007 World Cup final, the series is theirs to lose before it begins. They’ll head into the series having prepared physically, but the management will also need to win a battle or two to ensure the result.

In the wake of the candy-coated IPL, sports fans will be dying for some real nourishment. As the billboards lining the streets of Johannesburg will tell you, the next seven weeks are bound to be a feast.

By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg