The Springboks remain favourites to affect a 3-0 whitewash despite Peter de Villiers’s preference for an unusual combination.
Other than the suspended Schalk Burger, the Bok pillars remain. John Smit, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith and Fourie du Preez are irreplaceable individuals, and it is their individual brilliance that will allow a diluted Bok side to see off the Lions.
Smit’s leadership will play a part, but he’s likely to be on the losing side when it comes to the scrum. The balance of the Bok pack is disrupted with Johann Muller, another No 5, scrumming alongside Matfield. The Boks already give some weight away with Heinrich Brüssow in for Burger, but they’ll also miss the raw power of Bakkies Botha scrumming behind the tighthead.
Bismarck du Plessis had a big game last week and Chiliboy Ralepelle has much to prove if he’s going to be his understudy. His scrumming will need to be solid, and his throwing will need to be consistent if the hosts are going to obtain good attacking ball from the lineout. They have some great options at this set-piece, but as seen in the Super 14, Ralepelle isn’t always accurate.
Lions coach Ian McGeechan has also picked a mix-and-match pack with the majority of the players not boasting a terrible amount of game time together. Martyn Williams will go up against Brüssow on the deck, but the Cheetahs flanker’s proficiency will be amplified by men like Smith and Ryan Kankowski.
As seen in the Lions’ match against the Cheetahs, scrum supremacy doesn’t count for much when you’re being murdered at the breakdown. Expect Brüssow to replicate that heroic showing.
The Lions have retained the halfback combination that did so well at Loftus, while the Boks have opted to field the Bulls duo of Du Preez and Morné Steyn. Du Preez’s decision-making was fantastic last week, as was Steyn’s, and if the Bok pack achieves any sort of parity, they will be dangerous. Given that they should be under pressure at scrum time, it should help to have Du Preez’s quick hands and sure boot available.
It will be interesting to see how the Lions respond to a kicking barrage, as Rob Kearney has shown just how dangerous he is, whether countering from deep or launching one of those prodigious punts into opposition territory. The Boks have two wingers who are not really celebrated for their kicking game, but in new cap Zane Kirchner they have one of the best kicking fullbacks in the country. The Boks have options at the back, but again, it is how they gel as a unit that will determine their efficiency.
The Lions will miss the hard running of Jamie Roberts and silky skills of Brian O’Driscoll, while the Boks will welcome back Jaque Fourie and the in-form Wynand Olivier. If the Boks manage to get any good first-phase possession, their midfield will be difficult to contain. Tommy Bowe has played well on the wing and McGeechan believes he’ll make a good 13, but it might be a bit much to expect him to mark Fourie when even the most seasoned defenders find it tough.
The game could be another scrappy affair interspersed with moments of brilliance. It’s hard to know what to expect with both teams fielding new combinations, but the experience in the key positions and the aura of Ellis Park should be enough to see the Boks home.
Prediction: Boks by 5
Springboks – 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Jongi Nokwe, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Heinrich Brussow, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Johann Muller, 3 John Smit, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Gurthro Steenkamp, 18 Deon Carstens, 19 Steven Sykes, 20 Pierre Spies, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Frans Steyn.
British & Irish Lions – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Ugo Monye, 13 Tommy Bowe , 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Joe Worsley, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Subs: 16 Ross Ford, 17 John Hayes, 18 Alun-Wyn Jones, 19 David Wallace, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Harry Ellis, 22 James Hook.
By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg