Preview: Royal XV vs Lions

Keo.co.za looks at why the Lions will begin their 2009 tour with a scratchy but important victory.

It’s difficult to analyse a game featuring two brand-new teams. While the Lions’ tactics are predictable, it’s hard to say how well they’ll do given they’ve only been training together for two weeks.

The Royal XV is made up primarily of Griquas players that won the Vodacom Cup. Although the tournament itself is nothing to crow about, you don’t win trophies unless you’re a team in sync. This will help them in the initial stages as the Lions find their way, but the Royals still don’t have the class to force an upset.

The best of four Test unions will face a side mainly comprised of a Griquas outfit that finished sixth in the 2008 Currie Cup. No prizes for guessing the result here. While most of South Africa will hope the Royals roll over the Lions, it’s just not going to happen.

There’s little doubt Bees Roux deserves his moniker, but when it comes to the technical aspects of scrumming he was found wanting in the Super 14. Andrew Sheridan may not be in the same form that saw him demolish the Bok scrum in the 2007 World Cup pool game, but he’ll be good enough to break the Bees. Figuratively of course.

Sheridan will have his England team-mate Simon Shaw scrumming behind him, but the rest of the tight five are Gaelic with Welshmen Adam Jones and Matthew Rees manning the front row and Irishman Paul O’Connell in the second. Impressive on paper, but will they gel?

The Royal XV will battle to match the tourists at the breakdown with the hard-hitting Joe Worsely set to lead the Lions’ charge for physical supremacy. Martyn Williams will be a threat on the ground, and Andy Powell showed last year how difficult he is to tackle around the fringes.

The Lions have spent much of their time adjusting to altitude, and while it’ll be evident in their ability (or inability) to go the full eighty, it will show in their kicking. Assistant coach Warren Gatland mentioned on Tuesday that the Lions are thin in this department, so it’s important that halfbacks Mike Blair and Ronan O’Gara find their groove on Saturday. Tactical kicking is going to be so important when they play the Boks.

The first half should be scratchy, and one would hope the Royals provide a good defensive showing and oblige with the traditional South African welcome. While they can’t beat the Lions, they can certainly soften them up and disturb both their momentum and confidence. These are qualities the 1997 team had in abundance, and they are qualities developed through successive wins against the provinces.

The Lions’ back-three should receive a few aerial testers but should be given minimal space to move. If the Royals are slack in their chasing, Shane Williams has shown himself capable of striking from his own 22.

As the game progresses the Lions should find some semblence of synergy while the lack of depth in the Royal XV will be exposed. The Lions won’t have to worry about flagging intensity levels as the bench, who will be eager to leave their mark in the first match, will sustain the pressure. This is where the Royals will crack and the scoreline will indicate a comfortable victory to the Lions.

A win will be important to the Lions’ momentum, but the coaches will gauge success on performance. Ian McGeechan and company have expressed this as a priority all week, and so the scoreline should serve as no indicator to their success.

They’ve come to mix it with the physical South Africans and hope to beat them at their own game. This is but the first step towards preparing themselves for the true brutish battle with the Boks.

Prediction: Lions by 20

Royal XV – 15 Russell Jeacocks, 14 Egon Seconds, 13 Deon van Rensburg, 12 Hanno Coetzee, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Naas Olivier, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Jonathan Mokuena, 7 Devon Raubenheimer, 6 Wilhelm Koch (c), 5 Jacques Lombaard, 4 Rudi Mathee, 3 Bees Roux, 2 Rayno Barnes, 1 Albertus Buckle.
Subs: 16 Pellow van der Westhuizen, 17 Stef Roberts, 18 Rynard Landman, 19 RW Kember, 20 Jacques Coetzee, 21 Riaan Viljoen, 22 Jovan Bowles.

British & Irish Lions – 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Mike Blair, 8 Andy Powell, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Joe Worsely, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Subs: 16 Lee Mears, 17 Phil Vickery, 18 Alun-Wyn Jones, 19 Stephen Ferris, 20 Mike Phillips, 21 Stephen Jones, 22 Riki Flutey.

By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg