Lions throw down the gauntlet
June 4, 2009
The Lions may have caught a break with the late call-up of Tom Croft © Getty Images
Outsiders will have no idea what a boost the 74-10 hammering of the Golden Lions has given to the Lions camp.
OK, so Transvaal are not the side they used to be but they are still one of the top Provinces in South Africa. This is Francois Pienaar's team and they were the only provincial side to beat us on my first Lions tour in 1968.
This was the biggest victory in South Africa since the 97-0 win over South West Districts in 1974, but that was in sleepy little Mossel Bay half-way up the Garden Route against a team of local farmers. The Golden Lions might have been weakened but this has put down a real marker.
My main worry about this tour was always the ridiculously short build-up to the first Test. The Lions will have to pick their team after only five games and they would dearly love to be playing something like a shadow Test side against Western Province, a week on Saturday.
That made the first game even more worrying than normal. Despite all attempts over the years to counter the lack of preparation the Lions always arrive half-baked.
First there are all the problems associated with team building but when you go to Australia and New Zealand you have to deal with circadian disrhythmia (jet-lag to you and me).
In 1971we stopped off in Hong Kong to try to minimise the effects but that meant we had to play Queensland exactly 57 hours after an overnight flight. We lost and Des Connor, the New Zealander coaching Australia at the time, wrote us off as the worst touring side he had seen in the Antipodes. We took great delight in reminding him of that when we beat the All Blacks in the Test series.
When you arrive in South Africa they immediately whisk you off to the high veldt where the air is so thin your lungs burn and you actually feel as if you are sucking in nothing until you get used to it.
The latest sports science says you need more than a week to acclimatise and if you cannot afford that length of time you are better off storing oxygen at sea level and then flying up on the day of the match.
So, the Rustenburg game was the worst of both worlds. The Lions always need to work hard in that first week but they are depleting their energy reserves horribly by doing so. No wonder Martyn Williams, one of the most experienced members of the party and one of the fittest players around, said he felt as if he had some debilitating illness.
In isolation that lack-lustre performance against the Royal XV was nothing to worry about but another one would have meant the Lions had not made any progress, not thrown down the gauntlet and there were only three games left to sort out the Test team - not good.
Instead they will now feel they are ahead of the game. As Paul O'Connell accepted yesterday competition within the squad is what makes a Lions tour - you feel elated when you watch your team-mates rip a side apart but you also realise you have got to raise your game as a response to that.
The biggest difference between the first two performances was the pace at which the Lions played. Now Ian McGeechan and his men have to work out whether that was just because of the physical state of the players in that first game or whether they have to start to rethink.
O'Connell will be very aware that Alun-Wyn Jones made a huge contribution because he not only did his work in the tight but also shone in the wide open spaces.
All the Tests will be played on hard grounds and even with the re-introduction of the rolling maul - I found myself welcoming it back like an old friend - the pace of the game will considerably quicker than the average Six Nations match.
There was a welcome attempt by the forwards and backs to keep playing at pace. I believe this is absolutely vital if the Lions are to stand a chance in the Tests and I fancy McGeechan is already impressing this on his players.
They are also looking for the spaces instead of trying to run through opponents - one of the outstanding features of the match was the number of half-breaks that resulted in an off-load to a supporting player who was then able to make huge gains.
I think the Lions have also been slightly fortuitous. As regular readers know I found it hard to believe Tom Croft was not an original selection. He is a player made for South African conditions and he took the chance to show the selectors how wrong they were on his first outing.
James Hook's extra attacking flair might also become a factor if the Lions really go for high speed rugby so we are already seeing 'fringe' players challenging the established order.
Let's not get carried away - The Golden Lions were not very good and there is still an awful lot of hard work to do before we can look forward to the Tests with any real optimism - but the Lions are looking ultra competitive and that augurs well.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com
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