When winning isn’t everything

Ian McGeechan must have an ace up his sleeve if he truly believes the Lions are on track to upset the Springboks.

We’re done with the provincial matches that matter and in conclusion you have to ask whether they really have mattered. The British & Irish Lions narrowly avoided embarrassment in three of their five encounters and how different would the vibe be heading into the Tests if they had won only three from six?

There was the late surge that spared the tourists’ collective blush in Phokeng. There was the reliance on local errors – read the Cheetahs’ missed opportunities – to get them home in Bloemfontein. There was the nervous times at Newlands when they were facing an embarrassing draw with only six minutes to go.

The Springboks were favourites before the tour commenced and the Lions’ recent performances have done little to shake this popular belief. McGeechan leans on the comfort of results, but momentum isn’t necessarily all about winning. The six games preceding the Tests were always about building a unit to compete against the world champions, and although some individuals have impressed, the collective has yet to deliver to the point where the Boks should be worried.

It’s hard to comment until we’ve seen McGeechan’s Test side in action, but we can always speculate how those individuals are likely to come undone. The much-vaunted Jamie Roberts has been penetrative, but against what kind of midfield? Hanno Coetzee (Cheetahs) and Deon van Rensburg (Lions) were the centre pairing in the Rustenburg clash but were reserve centres for the two worst South African franchises in the Super 14. It doesn’t get much classier when you’re up against the Golden Lions’ Doppies la Grange and Jannie Boshoff or when you’re running at the Sharks’ second-string combo of Riaan Swanepoel and Andries Strauss. What has Roberts really done to have scribes around the globe telling the Boks to take note?

Let’s see Roberts make an impact against a Test defence, one that boasts a history of winning World Cups. The Welshman slotted in at centre the last time he toured South Africa in 2008 and failed to make his mark. Can you really see him busting through Jean de Villiers?

The other Lions individuals have been equally aided by local failings, Tommy Bowe scoring his fourth try of the tour thanks to the most ordinary WP defence. Mike Phillips has never been an issue for the Boks before and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s fine to snipe around the fringes when you’re playing against the provinces, but let’s see him do it when he runs the risk of a vicious rebuke courtesy of the Springbok loose forwards.

These Lions are a cut above our provincial sides, but the difference in class between the provinces and the tourists is not the same as the gap between the provinces and the Springboks. Some people forget that and this is why the Lions’ five consecutive wins have those same people worried.

The truth is McGeechan will know in his heart of hearts that the weakened provincial teams are still challenging his group of internationals in every department. His official line is that the development of his team is a process so mistakes are expected, but it’s hard to see them making such a big step up in the space of a week.

Just where is this ace that Geech is holding back, what does he know that we don’t?

The Lions will show their true hand this Saturday and all the speculation and mind games will cease. If you’re going to make a prediction and you’re going to make a bet, put money on the Springboks because all evidence past and present confirms their favourite status.

The McGeechan factor is the only reason there’s any doubt and the Springbok management have admitted it’s going to be tough to beat him. Fortunately, it won’t be the two management teams that square off at 3pm this Saturday. The world champions will front an untested British & Irish Lions combination and anything other than a victory to the Boks would make little sense.

The Lions’ coach hoped these provincial matches would help the tourists ‘come to terms with rugby in this country’. If he believes they now know what it’s like to be on the end of a Bakkies Botha tackle, then he’s the one that’s in for a surprise at King’s Park.

By Jon Cardinelli, in Durban