Boks close in on historic whitewash
Graham Jenkins in Johannesburg
July 3, 2009
Morne Steyn starts at fly-half for the Springboks © Getty Images
The British & Irish Lions take on South Africa in Johannesburg on Saturday in the third and final Test with nothing but pride at stake.
The Springboks' victory in the brutal but brilliant second Test in Pretoria last weekend saw them claim an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series and exact revenge for their defeat at the hands of the elite tourists 12 years ago.
History beckons for the hosts this weekend as victory at Ellis Park would see them clinch their first series whitewash over the Lions in over 100 years of trying. The tourists however will be desperate to secure some reward for their efforts and halt a seven-Test losing streak dating back to Australia in 2001.
There is little chance that this final clash will be able to match the previous two in terms of intensity but as a contest it remains intriguing. This week's war of words following the eye-gouging incident last time out is also set to add some spice to proceedings.
As a result of the series-defining game at Loftus Versfeld, two very different looking sides will go head-to-head at Ellis Park. Lions head coach Ian McGeechan has been forced to pick through the pieces of his bruised and battered squad which will see a new-look side featuring eight changes and one positional switch tackle the Springboks.
Injury has ravaged the Lions' ranks with star performers Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Roberts, Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins the latest to be ruled out of action in the aftermath of Loftus. Prop Phil Vickery returns to the front row for the first time since his mauling at the hands of South Africa's Tendai Mtawarira in the first Test and their battle will be one of the more interesting match-ups and he will be joined in the front-row by loose-head Andrew Sheridan.
Irishman Tommy Bowe, normally a winger, will form a new centre partnership with Riki Flutey while Ugo Monye and Shane Williams will start on the wings with Joe Worsley and Martyn Williams slotting in to the back-row.
South Africa's selection suggests that their focus is now on the forthcoming Tri-Nations. Coach Peter de Villiers has opted to ring the changes in the wake of the their series triumph with the suspension of both flanker Schalk Burger and lock Bakkies Botha triggering two enforced changes.
Botha lost his appeal Thursday against a two-week suspension for charging into Lions prop Adam Jones last weekend while Burger has begun his eight-week ban for making contact with the eye area of Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald.
The South African side contains just five players who started the second Test with captain and tight-head prop John Smit, loose-head prop Mtawarira, lock Victor Matfield, blindside Juan Smith and scrum-half Fourie de Preez the only survivors.
Last weekend's match-winner Morne Steyn starts a fly-half, while Chiliboy Ralepelle is another new addition at hooker. Johann Muller partners Matfield in the second row with the ever-impressive Heinrich Brussow packing down alongside Sharks No.8 Ryan Kankowski. Further changes come in the backline headed by the uncapped Zane Kirchner at fullback. Jongi Nokwe and Odwa Ndungane come into the side on the wings while Wynand Olivier and Jaque Fourie form an impressive centre pairing.
On paper, the Springboks look formidable while the Lions look like a make-shift side at the end of what has been a draining tour - both physically and mentally. Despite several changes the home side will go into the Test as strong favourites to heap woe on the visitors. It will take another monumental effort from the Lions to cause an upset and the question is whether they have enough left in the tank.
In midfield specifically, the Fourie-Olivier pairing is arguably stronger than that of Jean de Villiers and Adi Jacobs and the untried Bowe-Flutey partnership could be in for a busy afternoon. In addition, if the Springboks dominate up front then the Bulls' halfback duo of Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn and the in-form Kirchner could inflict yet further damage on the Lions.
Home advantage will carry with it the usual weight although the Lions' supporters, still a strong presence in the city, will again do their best to rally their side. And if anyone deserves something out of this tour it is the tourists' loyal following.
A lot has been made of the inspirational power of the famous red jersey but it will take more than that to lift the Lions from the despair of last Saturday. For the Lions in particular this game is a huge test of character. If they crumble, as some fear they might, all the hard work that has gone into this tour will be forgotten - overshadowed by the glare of a 3-0 series defeat. There will be nowhere for them to hide should they lose.
This new-look Springboks side also has plenty of motivation in the form of this year's Tri-Nations. This match offers many of them the chance to prove their coach wrong and put their hand up for selection ahead of their opener against New Zealand later this month. A lot will depend on their mental attitude coming into the game but if their talismanic skipper John Smit has anything to do with it they will treat this game as the previous two.
With so many changes on both sides it is difficult to know what to expect from the game as a spectacle but you can rest assured the officials will clamp-down on any kind of foul play or off the ball confrontations as they look to re-build the reputation of the game after a week of the wrong kind of headlines.
We can only hope that the match is not as one-sided as it appears and that this encounter lives up to is predecessors.
South Africa: Zane Kirchner (Bulls); Odwa Ndungane (Sharks), Jacque Fourie (Lions), Wynand Olivier (Bulls), Jongi Nokwe (Cheetahs); Morne Steyn (Bulls), Fourie du Preez (Bulls); Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks), Chiliboy Ralepelle (Bulls), John Smit (Sharks, cpt), Johann Muller (Sharks), Victor Matfield (Bulls), Heinrich Brussow (Cheetahs), Juan Smith (Cheetahs), Ryan Kankowski (Sharks).
Replacements: Bismarck du Plessis (Sharks), Gurthro Steenkamp (Bulls), Deon Carstens (Sharks), Steven Sykes (Sharks), Pierre Spies (Bulls), Ruan Pienaar (Sharks), Francois Steyn (Sharks).
British & Irish Lions: Rob Kearney (Leinster/Ireland), Ugo Monye (Harlequins/England), Tommy Bowe (Ospreys/Ireland), Riki Flutey (London Wasps/England), Shane Williams (Ospreys/Wales), Stephen Jones (Scarlets/Wales), Mike Phillips (Ospreys/Wales), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland), Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Joe Worsley (London Wasps/England), Paul O'Connell (Munster/Ireland, captain), Simon Shaw (London Wasps/England), Phil Vickery (London Wasps/England), Matthew Rees (Scarlets/Wales), Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks/England)
Replacements: Ross Ford (Edinburgh/Scotland), John Hayes (Munster/Ireland), Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales), David Wallace (Munster/Ireland), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers/England), Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers/England), James Hook (Ospreys/Wales)
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Assistant referees: Christophe Berdos (France), Vinny Munro (New Zealand)