Win-or-bust for the Lions
Graham Jenkins in Johannesburg
June 26, 2009
Adam Jones has been called in to shore up the Lions' scrum for the second Test © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions face a win-or-bust scenario on Saturday when they tackle South Africa in the second Test at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.
If the first Test was the Class of 2009's 'Everest' then there is no known peak on the planet that represents the bigger challenge awaiting them this weekend. The Springboks' 26-21 victory over the tourists in Durban last weekend means that they are just one win away from clinching the three-match series and writing their name in the record books. The Lions face a monumental task if they are to prevent the hosts from exacting revenge for their painful 2-1 series defeat in 1997 but know a win will set up a winner-takes-all clash in Johannesburg in the tour finale.
For this pivotal clash the Lions must return to altitude with the thin air of the Highveld, 1400m above sea-level, sure to be a factor. The accepted theory behind playing at altitude is that you either arrive eight days before or on the eve of the game - with the first option allowing you to acclimatise while the latter does not allow time for the effects to kick in. As a result this latest meeting of these two old rivals will be a testing ground for physiological theory with the Springboks having based themselves at altitude while the Lions intend to arrive from their Cape Town base on Friday.
Each side's ability to perform to their optimum level in extreme conditions is just one aspect in what is likely to be another fascinating game. Perhaps for the first time on tour the Lions face stepping into what will be a hostile environment. Loftus, as it is known, is the home of a notoriously vociferous crowd and while the Lions may relish playing in front of the first sell-out crowd on this current tour, it remains to be seen whether their red army of supporters can hold their own when their team need them most.
The significant weight of history is also against the tourists. They have bounced back from defeat in the opening Test to claim the series on just two occasions in their illustrious history - and never against South Africa. Way back in 1899, the Reverend Matthew Mullineux-led Lions went down 13-3 to Australia before eventually claiming a 3-1 series victory while in 1989, Finaly Calder's Lions lost 30-12 to the Wallabies in Sydney before winning the next two showdowns. One point of note is that current head coach Ian McGeechan took charge of the Lions for that victorious 1989 tour. And the Lions can also take heart from the fact that they have tasted success at Pretoria in three of the four Test clashes they have played there since 1955 with further victories following in 1974 and 1980.
McGeechan was always unlikely to admit he got things wrong first time around but there has been enough corrective surgery to his line-up to suggest that he has admitted his errors. There are five changes to the side that struggled for the best part of an hour in Durban with perhaps the most significant changes in the pack.
The tourists were bullied by the Springboks until the introduction of tight-head Adam Jones and then hooker Matthew Rees, in place of Phil Vickery and Lee Mears, who were given a torrid time by the hosts. As a result the two are rewarded with starting berths as is veteran lock Simon Shaw. The increased physical presence is aimed at leveling the playing field in the scrum and in the loose, in particular in defending the rolling maul.
Saturday's game in Pretoria will be Shaw's 16th appearance in the famous red jersey since making his debut in the first game of the 1997 tour but it will be the 35-year-old's first Test appearance. Two others making their Test bow for the Lions are fullback Rob Kearney and winger Luke Fitzgerald. The dependable Kearney benefits from an injury to rival Lee Byrne whose tour was ended this week by a thumb injury. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Fitzgerald earns a promotion at the expense of Ugo Monye whose faltering display in Durban sees him drop out of the match day squad altogether.
Changes among the replacements see Ross Ford, Andrew Sheridan and Shane Williams drafted in and Alun-Wyn Jones drop down from the first Test starting XV to replace Donncha O'Callaghan.
South Africa coach Peter de Villiers has made just one change to his side as they look to deliver the knockout blow in the series. Flanker Schalk Burger returns to the side from injury in favour of the otherwise impressive Heinrich Brüssow and will be making his 50th appearance in Springbok colours. Brüssow moves to the bench, with scrum-half Ricky Januarie dropping out of squad. The only other change is on the bench, where hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle replaces prop Gurthrö Steenkamp.
The Springboks made the mistake of taking their foot off the gas in Durban last weekend and were not helped by a raft of replacements when it appeared the game was won. The Lions pounced on that opportunity and almost conjured a comeback but were to be denied. The Boks' management will not make a similar error in judgment this time around.
But the Lions can rightly take great hope from their second half display once they had shored up the pack. With ball in hand and momentum behind them they looked increasingly dangerous, created countless opportunities and often cut South Africa wide open with the lethal centre pairing of Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll the main orchestrators.
At this moment in time the series is very much alive and although the odds appear stacked against them, the Lions will be confident of causing an upset on Saturday afternoon. They will need to raise their game to an unprecedented level and discover a clinical edge that was sorely missing in the first Test but if they do they could well be heading to Johannesburg for the series finale with everything to play for.
South Africa: Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen, Adi Jacobs, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Ruan Pienaar, Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, John Smit (captain), Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: Chiliboy Ralepelle, Deon Carstens, Andries Bekker, Danie Rossouw, Heinrich Brüssow, Jaque Fourie, Morné Steyn
British & Irish Lions: Rob Kearney (Leinster & Ireland), Tommy Bowe (Ospreys & Ireland), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster & Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues & Wales), Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster & Ireland), Stephen Jones (Scarlets & Wales), Mike Phillips (Ospreys & Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster & Ireland), David Wallace (Munster & Ireland), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers & England), Paul O'Connell (Munster & Ireland, captain), Simon Shaw (London Wasps & England), Adam Jones (Ospreys & Wales), Matthew Rees (Scarlets & Wales), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues & Wales)
Replacements: Ross Ford (Edinburgh & Scotland), Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks & England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys & Wales), Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues & Wales), Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers & England), Ronan O'Gara (Munster & Ireland), Shane Williams (Ospreys & Wales)
Referee: Christophe Berdos (France)
Assistant referees: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand), Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
They came to Murrayfield looking to put down a marker, but Scotland were sent home with their tails between their legs, writes Tristan Barclay
The controversial tackling technique will be in full swing in Dublin on Sunday, writes Conor O'Shea, and could be a decisive factor for Ireland
"This team deserves to be recognised as the greatest of all time." Huw Richards looks at Gareth Edwards' final match for Wales