An intense halfback battle with Jano Vermaak could provide the springboard to Test selection for Mike Phillips.
It will be a battle of contrasting styles at the base of the scrum with the more physical Welshman up against a more traditional prototype in Vermaak. The Golden Lions No 9 enjoyed another successful Super 14 campaign and is unlucky not to be Fourie du Preez’s understudy.
He now has a chance to state his case on the closest stage to Test level, against one of the most dangerous running No 9s in the world. Phillips, the biggest scrumhalf in Welsh history at 103kg, will hold a significant weight advantage that will help bring his pack into the game, but he is not expecting the feisty Vermaak to hold back.
‘He’s a real livewire,’ said Phillips. ‘He’s quite dangerous and we will have to keep our wits about us. They also have a strong back row so our defence all round will have to improve compared to Saturday [where they conceded three tries].’
The Lions’ management have been disappointed in their only defensive showing. The hosts were an exciting attacking outfit in the Super 14, but their defence was pitiful.
Phillips highlighted the latter factor as the key facet of the game.
‘Defence will win us the game. It’s great having [defence coach] Shaun Edwards keeping us going, he’s very enthusiastic. He puts people back in place if they need it. If you miss a tackle or if you are out of position, you get a real rollicking.’
Phillips will also form the 9-10 axis with a familiar partner in Stephen Jones. The pair started their careers at the Scarlets and now are the first choice halfbacks for Wales.
Phillips realises this is the perfect opportunity to jump the queue ahead of Mike Blair and Ronan O’Gara, who were ordinary in the tour-opener.
‘It’s great to be alongside Stephen. This is an amazing honour to be there and I can’t really believe it’s happening. It is a massive game for us to perform in.
‘The first couple of games are always tricky getting used to new players. All of us have gotten to know each other well, now we need to perform on the pitch.’
Phillips is not on tour to make up the numbers. He’s in South Africa to make history on a personal and team level.
‘There are so many great Welsh scrumhalves who have worn the Lions jersey. Gareth Edwards, Robert Jones and Rob Howley. I have a lot to live up to.
‘Hopefully I’ll be remembered like them one day.’
By Grant Ball, in Johannesburg