Stage set for epic Test series
June 17, 2009
South Africa coach Peter de Villiers and and Lions head coach Ian McGeechan will lead their sides into battle this weekend © Getty Images
The wait is almost over. The 2009 British & Irish Lions' tour of South Africa reaches the business end this weekend with the opening exchange in the three-Test series with the Springboks.
The biggest event in our sport's calendar outside of the Rugby World Cup has been slowly simmering over the last three weeks but the action will intensify ten-fold on Saturday with the first Test at Kings Park in Durban with further clashes set for Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria and Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
South Africa have had to wait 12 long years for the chance to erase the memories of their shock defeat at the hands of the Lions on their last visit to the country and those wounds remain raw for the current crop of Springboks. The Lions also have some ghosts to exorcise having capitulated on their last tour to New Zealand four years ago.
The two sides have an impressive history dating back to 1891 and in the all-time statistics the Springboks hold a narrow lead with 21 Test victories to the Lions' 16. But it will be that painful 2-1 series loss in 1997 that will be their main motivation as they go into this often-hyped 'once in a lifetime' battle.
The Lions go into Test series as heavy underdogs despite a six-game unbeaten run in their warm-up games. They may have the best players that England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales can offer but limited preparation and the shortest tour in the Lions' history mean had coach Ian McGeechan and his coaching team have had precious little time to forge a team that is capable of toppling the Springboks.
As in 1997, South Africa play host to the Lions as Rugby World Cup holders having swept all before them in France in 2007 and they are now arguably a better side than the one that lifted the Webb Ellis Cup at the Stade de France.
The similarities with the build up to the Lions' last visit do not end there with several more parallels. The Springboks had just one outing before embarking on the Test series in 1997, a largely meaningless encounter with Tonga which they won 74-10. The class of 2009 have had even less opportunity to ready themselves for the Lions with coach Peter de Villiers opting to withdraw his players from the provincial games and field only a South African XV in their only warm-up against a invitational Namibian XV.
Perhaps the most telling link between 1997 and 2009 is the presence of McGeechan.
The wily Scot is unique in having scored a notable double over South Africa. He played in the Lions' side that went unbeaten in South Africa in 1974 and returned as head coach in 1997 to mastermind yet another Test series triumph.
In addition he was also head coach of the victorious 1989 Lions that beat Australia and took charge again in 1993 for the trip to New Zealand. He enters this latest Test series with an impressive record of having played 9, won 5 and lost 4. He also served as an assistant coach on the ill-fated tour of New Zealand in 2005 and his involvement in this year's challenge saw him eclipse the record of Lions great Willie John McBride who went on five tours as a player and one as a manager.
In a way McGeechan has nothing left to prove with his place in history assured. Win or lose he will step down from his post at the end of the tour before embarking on a fresh challenge having parted company with Wasps. But his legendary competitive streak will ensure he is as hungry for success now as he was the first time he pulled on the famous red jersey.
In contrast the pressure is on his opposite number De Villiers to succeed where Carel du Plessis failed in 1997. While defeat in the forthcoming Test series is unlikely to signal the end of his reign, his somewhat controversial methods will come under even closer scrutiny should his side fail to exact an element of revenge.
De Villiers has steered his side to victories over Wales, Scotland and England since taking charge in the wake of their Rugby World Cup triumph but has yet to tackle Ireland. The fact that this current crop of Lions includes a large contingent from the Six Nations Grand Slam-winning side - with perhaps as many as seven set to make the Test squad - will no doubt add to the unknown factor.
This weekend's first Test - the only one at sea-level - has long been pinpointed as crucial to the destiny of the entire series and more significantly pivotal to the Lions' hopes of success. The '97 Lions won the corresponding fixture at Newlands before wrapping up the series in Durban a week later. This year's tourists would have to win back-to-back clashes at altitude to emulate their predecessors if they fail to take advantage of the one fixture that looks to be stacked in their favour.
The Lions have done incredibly well to reach a point where they look like a solid side and not a group of talented individuals. And McGeechan appears to have worked his man-management magic with his latest charges. But in South Africa they face a formidable foe. Mouth-watering head-to-heads await across the field on Saturday with the battle of the breakdown, lineout and scrum ensuring a full-on physical war.
History beckons the brave and the chance to write their names in the record books will be a powerful motivation for all the players over the coming three weeks but a potential lifetime full of regret is more likely to bring the best out of both sides.
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