The hour is nigh. One more day until the most eagerly-awaited Test series of all kicks off on Saturday. A real series. The last great tour. Don’t you just love it?
Emotions will run high on Saturday for many of the men in red shirts. For some, it will be the nerves of making a debut in that treasured kit item. For others, a fresh chance, finally, to feel the glory palpably absent from the 2005 tour.
Emotions will run high in green shirts as well. The only of the Tri-Nations not to have successfully brought a Lion problem under control in the last series of tours, there’s a new target to achieve for a demanding nation still sceptical over its new coach and a final feather in the cap for a large part of a side that boasts nearly 47 caps per man in the side and many a World Cup winner’s medal.
It’s about time some emotion came into it all. The greed with which the organisers have set about selling the soul of this tour, coupled with the cotton wool Peter de Villiers has kept his squad wrapped in, have meant that the provincial games have frequently been played with half-strength teams in a half-hearted atmosphere.
Even the day before the Test, tickets are still available. That’s tickets for a game between the World Champions and the British and Irish Lions touring team that comes around only once every dozen years. Still tickets available? They should be costing over a thousand rand on the black market between desperate punters, not from a sleepy ticket office. Someone, somewhere, has made a dreadful error.
That’s not stopped the travelling fans heading over. Since Cape Town, they’ve been arriving in droves, flights chock-full of stocky chaps in the natty red Adidas garb, singing songs about dicky-didos, sweet chariots and being ‘lost like a slave that no man could free’. Bagpipes have piped, even a couple of trumpets have played. The locals may not be coming to the party, but there’s no shortage of tourists.
Speaking of wind instruments, no item will have a greater effect on Saturday’s proceedings than the whistle of referee Bryce Lawrence. All tour, the Lions have seen confusion at the scrum and breakdown, justified in some cases, straw-clutching in others.
Gethin Jenkins has just cause to be more concerned than most, having popped his opponent all over the place in Durban a few days ago yet found himself on the receiving end of three or four technical penalties, as well as any number of resets where the penalties should have been coming his way.
“When he got tired, he was going in and going on the floor,” said Jenkins on Durban.
“We should have kept him up and worked him. Instead I conceded penalties. But every referee is different, we have to do what we do and make sure we know what’s going on.”
Ian McGeechan will by now have had his pre-match meeting with Bryce Lawrence and company, where he said he has sought “a strong voice” over the breakdown and scrum, rather than any specific ruling. Privately, he’ll be looking for Lawrence to be very aware of how and why a scrum goes down, and to be decisive enough and authoritative enough to stop it happening. He’ll also have sought an explicit ruling on who is offside, and when and where.
As far as the game goes, both camps have expressed their intention on caution initially, with the Boks’ main weapons in their pack and McGeechan renowned for a patient phase-building game. How long that will last is anyone’s guess. The Lions’ chief weaponry is out wide and Warren Gatland said earlier in the week that up to now, only about 30 per cent of the practiced tactical nuances have been on display at any one time. Some, like the utilisation of Tommy Bowe’s skills in the middle, have been devastating. Others, like the trimming down of the numbers securing possession, are still in need of urgent refinement.
What Peter de Villiers has sought to bring is anyone’s guess. He’s not been seen at a press conference this week, nor has he been hands-on in any way at training sessions. Saturday holds a potential well of surprise as far as tactics go – if there’s one coach to be relied upon to produce the unconventional, it is he.
So what a game we have. But it’s not all won and lost here, as McGeechan stressed on Thursday. It’s a series. We have to look at it like that. Expect a tight game, where gaining a small advantage is the priority. To that end, expect tension and a close finish. And it’s the World Champions against the Lions. Expect a belter!
Ones to watch & head to head: Too many to single out here, so please see our special head-to-head feature!
Prediction: First big call of the tour… we have the Lions by six, just edging the Boks by virtue of being a bit more battle-hard.
South Africa: 15 Frans Steyn, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Adi Jacobs, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 John Smit (c), 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 17 Deon Carstens, 18 Andries Bekker, 19 Danie Rossouw, 20 Ricky Januarie, 21 Jaque Fourie, 22 Morné Steyn.
British & Irish Lions: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Lee Mears, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Adam Jones, 18 Donncha O’Callaghan, 19 Martyn Williams, 20 Harry Ellis, 21 Ronan O’Gara, 22 Rob Kearney.
Date: Saturday, June 20
Venue: ABSA Stadium Durban
Kick-off: 15.00 (13.00 GMT)
Weather: Warm, sunny, and muggy. 24°C with high humidity
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Stuart Dickinson, Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Television match official: Christophe Berdos (France)
Assessor: Tappe Henning (South Africa)