After Saturday’s defeat, there’s no way back for the limited Lions.
The British & Irish Lions placed an emphasis on the first Test and very nearly scored the upset they needed to keep this series competitive. Vulnerable as the Springboks were due to lack of game time, they pulled through. As much as the Bok coaches blundered in their choice of substitutions, the players got the job done.
The result saw the Lions’ one and only opportunity evaporate. They now need to travel to the highveld and win two in a row – a feat that’s as close to impossible as it gets. The Boks last lost a Loftus Versfeld Test (to New Zealand) in 2006 and last lost an Ellis Park Test (to France) in 2001. Since 1891, the Boks have never lost back-to-back Tests on the highveld.
So why now? What does this Lions side possess that makes them believe they can achieve what no other team in history has to date? Brian O’Driscoll? Andrew Sheridan? Ian McGeechan? The fabled four-powers-combined, water-into-wine energy of the home unions?
The answer is nothing. That was proved last Saturday. The Boks weren’t on song, but were still good enough to resist the tourists’ best efforts. The Boks will be better this week, and it’s hard to see the Lions’ lifting themselves beyond their current standard.
Peter de Villiers has been slammed, and deservedly so, but that doesn’t change the fact that his Bok team is a class apart. It’s a point the UK media seem to be missing as they cling to hope of an upset.
De Villiers also misses the point if he believes the local critics are ignorant of a victory. The real concern is that the Boks should have thumped the Lions by 40, and unless they sharpen up on the field and in the coaches’ box, they will run another unnecessary risk at Loftus.
But the Lions have offered up nothing special, failing in the set-pieces and breakdowns. Last Saturday they capitalised on several instances where a Bok individual lapsed. There was no case where they systematically unlocked the Bok defence to score.
After the sideshow at Newlands, McGeechan will be wracking his brain for a solution to the highveld conundrum. He’ll need to make several changes, most notably at openside flank where Martyn Williams’s particular skill-set is a must.
He’ll also need to change tactics, as the multi-phased attack doesn’t work against a team like the Boks. They are usually a well-drilled defensive unit, and last Saturday witnessed a few individual lapses that the Lions exploited.
It’s an area the Boks will better in the build-up, just as they will look do better in the possession stakes. Although they’ve proven themselves capable of defending for lengthy periods, De Villiers has made it clear they want to dominate possession. If they manage to dominate at Loftus, the Lions could indeed face the 40-point thumping they deserved in Durban. And if they don’t, well it could be another ugly five-point win. But that’s unlikely.
The Lions were tactically outkicked at King’s Park, and in Bulls’ country, you can’t see them bettering Bok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez. The line-kicking game of Frans Steyn will be a factor and Ruan Pienaar will look to build on his fine tactical-kicking display of last week. The fact that the Lions are heading up to Gauteng as late as Friday afternoon means they’ll battle to readjust to the altitude. Their players are at a disadvantage before they even step onto the playing field.
So just where is the upset going to come from? Is a change in the front row going to reverse the Lions’ set-piece fortunes? Is a change to their second-row going to threaten the Bok lineout quartet of Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Pierre Spies and Juan Smith? Is Martyn Williams going to inspire a winning effort at the breakdown despite the threat of Heinrich Brussow, or even the returning Schalk Burger?
Ronan O’Gara or Stephen Jones are much of a muchness when they’re playing behind a losing pack. If Geech brings in Shane Williams, the dangerous runner may find himself starved of opportunity due to another frontline pummeling. Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll are being talked up as gamebreakers, but they’re only as potent as the Bok defensive allows them to be.
So where is the Lions’ catalyst for a turnaround? At this point, I’m sure the highly respected coaching genius that is Ian McGeechan doesn’t know himself.
By Jon Cardinell, in Johannesburg