The British & Irish Lions will have the edge on the Springboks in terms of match readiness, but they still appear to have no clear picture of what their strongest line-up is.
The Boks have no such worries and, barring injury or a selection bolter, will field a side familiar to the South African rugby fraternity.
Questions remain about who will start at fullback, and if JP Pietersen is deployed in that role, a void will have to be filled on the right wing. However, outside of those positions, one can be fairly certain that coach Peter de Villiers is settled on his strongest 15, which will boast extensive Test experience, and the majority of whom will be World Cup winners.
The Lions, conversely, are still seemingly mulling over most positions, with the exception of lock, where captain Paul O’Connell is a certainty, loosehead prop where the powerful Andrew Sheridan will be the genesis of their attack, and outside centre, where Brian O’Driscoll remains a class act and central to their success.
Even the current IRB Player of the Year, Shane Williams, is not certain of a run-on spot. On the surface this seems ludicrous, but like Springbok flyer and his self-proclaimed nemesis, Bryan Habana, Williams seems to have been cursed by the prestigious award. The Welshman didn’t shy from the fact that he’s been below par either, saying, ‘I am not going to feel sorry for myself. I am trying my best to get involved but things are not going my way. I am not going to let it bother me or hang my head in shame. I know I can do well out here.’
Reports from the English media suggest that the powerful Ugo Monye has done enough to convince the Lions’ management to seriously reassess Williams’s ongoing value in the starting line-up, a situation that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
Lions lock Nathan Hines tried to put a positive spin on the selection uncertainty, saying, ‘The players have no idea how the management is seeing things. That is the right way to go because everyone thinks they are in contention for a Test spot. We face the Sharks on Wednesday, and whereas on previous tours that may not have been a game you wanted to be involved in, because the Saturday side would have been the likely Test line-up, that is not the case on this trip.’
What Hines omits to offer is that knowing exactly where you stand in terms of selection benefits a player significantly. Countless Springboks have reinforced this view, particularly during former coach Jake White’s tenure, where selection continuity was a defining feature. Victor Matfield is not sweating over whether he’ll start, neither is Jean de Villiers or Schalk Burger, or any number of other Springboks. They are free to focus of executing their roles excellently, without the fear of non-selection or the desperation to prove themselves that more often than not has an adverse effect on form.
Lions coach Ian McGeechan commands respect for what he has achieved with the Lions and Wasps, but there can be no doubt that even after three Lions tours as head coach and one as an assistant, the great man still seems uncertain about which approach – a squad spilt into midweek scrappers and Test potentials ,or their current all-in philosophy – is the one to get the results he envisions.
Attack coach Rob Howley confirmed to the media that they would not play what they believed was their strongest combination in their remaining warm-up matches, explaining, ‘Analysts play a big part in today’s game. They dissect every piece of information made available to them and it is vital that we hold things back from South Africa. The team for the first Test will not play until the day itself.’
But what value will withholding information from the Springboks have if they Lions struggle to gel on the day because of unfamiliarity?
As much as it promises to be a battle of contrasting styles, so it shaping to be a battle of the synergy and experience of the Springboks, against a Lions side short on the former as a result of a lack of game time together.
Much has been made of the Springboks’ lack of game time coming into the series, and how the Lions will edge them in this regard. If the tourists will indeed be battled hardened after being carted around the country in a sanctioned softening-up exercise, remains to be seen, but that should be of secondary concern to finding synergy.
The experience and familiarity of the Springboks’ unit should negate their lack of game time. The Lions have opted to sacrifice an opportunity to build synergy in their preferred Test 22, gambling on the fact that it will all come together in a week. Time will judge the effectiveness of the approach, but it’s a massive gamble to take.
By Ryan Vrede, in Durban
Read more about the Lions tour in the collector’s edition of SA Rugby magazine, on sale now