From Paul Morgan, editor, Rugby World Magazine
When a guy like Phil Vickery, who has won a World Cup, sits down in front of you and says: “Being involved in th Lions is the biggest thing I could ever do. It is a real showpiece that demonstrates everything great about our game, and the whole event means I’m more nervous now than I ever been in my whole rugby career.” The hairs of the back of my neck certainly stood up, and made me realise exactly how big (as if I didn’t know) this Lions series against South Africa is.
It is the game everyone has been waiting for, well I have anyway, since the Lions were walloped by an exceptional New Zealand side in 2005.
The reality about tomorrow’s Test match is that no one knows how good either side is.
The Lions are a scratch side with a number of exceptional players while the Springboks are missing key players in Schalk Burger, Butch James and Conrad Jantjes and are starting with a side that has not only not played Test rugby for seven months, but has never played together before!
South Africa clearly start as favourites but here in Durban as the game gets closer you get the feeling that the Lions are getting better. Certainly if you had said to Ian McGeechan six weeks ago he could pick that team of the first Test he would have bitten you hand off. Peter de Villiers cannot say the same.
So what will decide this incredibly important Test match?
1.Referee Bryce Lawrence. Well, I hope not the referee. His performance at the first breakdown will be crucial. What he does there could define the rest of the match and the key for both sides is to understand exactly what he will and will not put up with after a tackle has been made…and conform to it. Both sides will cheat at the breakdown, when they come under pressure. All sides do, so as England found out in the Six Nations the key is not to come under the pressure and make sure you pick a forward pack that puts you on a front foot.
2.The Collisions – Make sure you make it early in front of the tv and watch the first two collisions. They will decide the game. Lose the first couple and you lose the game.
3.The Breakdown – Physicality and Precision are the key elements here. At the start of the Six Nations Wales were masters. Look for guys like Gethin Jenkins and Alun Wyn Jones to arrive at the breakdown with a plan. And this is most important when the Lions have the ball. If the Lions have the ball it is to shift Brüssow and his pals off it. Too many times on this tour we have seen Lions forwards arrive at a ruck and just smash into an opposition player. That will ensure the Lions lose. They must hit them with precision and know exactly what they are trying to do.
Get 1,2 and 3 right and the points will flow. Get them wrong and you are in for a long afternoon.
So what does that mean in terms of who will win? Well I do subscribe to the theory that the Springboks will be a little undercooked for this game. And even though a home game will be worth seven points to them I believe the Lions will win this one by seven. Whether that means they will win the series will depend on injuries on Saturday? The second and third Test will be twice as hard as the first, not just because they are at altitude, but the Springboks will get better and better.
Cool heads are needed!
South Africa: 15 Frans Steyn, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Adi Jacobs, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 John Smit (c), 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira. Subs: 16 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 17 Deon Carstens, 18 Andries Bekker, 19 Danie Rossouw, 20 Ricky Januarie, 21 Jaque Fourie, 22 Morné Steyn.
British & Irish Lions: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Lee Mears, 1 Gethin Jenkins. Subs: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Adam Jones, 18 Donncha O’Callaghan, 19 Martyn Williams, 20 Harry Ellis, 21 Ronan O’Gara, 22 Rob Kearney.
Kick off 2pm UK time – match live on Sky Sports
Weather: Warm, sunny, and muggy. 24°C with high humidity
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand). Assistant referees: Stuart Dickinson, Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Television match official: Christophe Berdos (France)
But what do you think? Seven-point win to the Lions or something completely different?