Lions sound out warning to Springboks
Graham Jenkins in Johannesburg
June 3, 2009
British & Irish Lions centre Jamie Roberts produced another eye-catching display © Getty Images
A statement of intent was the order of the day at Ellis Park and the British & Irish Lions duly delivered with a mouth-watering display to blow away their namesakes.
Ian McGeechan's side sounded a warning to the Springboks that they will not get everything their own way in the forthcoming three-Test series with a 10-try romp against their Super 14 opposition, who should be investigated under the trade descriptions act as these Lions lacked any kind of bite.
Sadly the Lions were greeted by another disappointing crowd - just 22,218 - with row after row of empty red seats within the 60,000 capacity Ellis Park. Maybe the locals knew something we didn't - that their side were going to get a pasting? But word of mouth will ensure that the message reaches those who were not here - including South Africa coach Peter de Villiers.
The pressure was on the tourists to make a statement this evening after a forgettable performance against the Royal XV last Saturday - a marker had to be laid down was the message we got from management this week and the players obliged.
The immediate signs were not great as fly-half Stephen Jones dropped the ball in the first minute - surely we were not in for another error-strewn display as we had witnessed in Rustenburg? Any fears were soon allayed. A five-try burst in the first-half alone was enough to silence doubters and reassure supporters that the class of 2009 have what it will take to make a mark like their victorious predecessors in 1974 and 1997.
Jamie Roberts continues to impress. He was talked up as a potential star of this tour long before his selection and in his second consecutive start he underlined his worth. After an excellent debut against the Royal XV he produced another eye-catching display including two tries on his way to the Man of the Match honour.
The 6ft 4in-17st centre tore into the Lions' defence with the kind of powerful and gain line-busting runs that will give De Villiers some restless nights in the coming weeks. He was withdrawn in the second half with the game long won and the temptation will be to wrap him up until the Test series but in this kind of form it is hard to deny him further opportunities. Needless to say the Lions management need not worry about calling up further back-up if the Cardiff Blues man remains fit and hungry.
His likely Test partner Brian O'Driscoll led by example as we have come to expect, maintaining his try-scoring form and causing havoc in the Lions' defence. He remains key to the tourists' aspirations. Paul O'Connell may well be the captain of the squad but O'Driscoll remains the heartbeat and his class was there for all to see.
Roberts and O'Driscoll will be amongst the first to deflect praise onto their pack for dominating their counterparts and creating the space for them to revel in.
Flanker Tom Croft was at the heart of a lot that good work and was another to edge nearer a Test berth. Omitted from McGeechan's original squad, the versatile flanker was drafted in as a replacement for the suspended Alan Quinlan but he insisted tonight's game was not about saying 'I told you so'. Even so, he will no doubt take plenty of personal satisfaction from a series of rampaging runs and a try to boot.
Scrum-half Mike Phillips also caught the eye with a tenacious display. A running spat with his opposite number - the dangerous Jano Vermaak - showed the Lions are prepared to fight their corner and such a physical trait will prove valuable in the weeks to come.
Wingers Ugo Monye and Tommy Bowe also dotted down twice and both looked full of confidence and more importantly running.
The attacking lines were as varied as the musical interludes provided by our hosts - Los Lobos, Kid Rock, Daft Punk, Jackson Five and Duran Duran to name just a few. The Lions also raised the bar on the defensive front but Shaun Edwards will still query the fact that the Golden Lions managed to cross for a solitary try. But the Lions did shut up shop in the second half when they could have easily let their foot off the gas.
As good as they were, and they were so much better than their last outing, the bonus for McGeechan and co is that the Lions are far from the finished article. And probably just as well as there are tougher tests ahead. Their hosts on the other hand had a dreadful lack of fight about them. The internal politics that have blighted their preparations looked to have taken their toll and this 'once in a lifetime' opportunity to take on the tourists failed to inspire them.
The Lions' near-Test strength side could not fail. I am sure such words of warning were ringing in their ears as they took to the field. Defeat would have meant trouble while another faltering display would have sowed further seeds of doubt.
But thankfully the tour is well and truly back on track - more of the same please.
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