South African Tour Preview: British Lions look to re-affirm status in 2009
Ian McGeechan – referred by some as the Alex Ferguson of rugby – will take the Lions back to basics on their upcoming tour of South Africa.
It will be a restoration to the time-honoured ethos of the celebrated team. More condensed, more unified, and most importantly, players selected on merit.
The Scot, the last British Lions coach to taste success, has an outstanding record with the Lions and coaching overall. Some would argue that the current Director of Rugby with London Wasps and former Northampton and Scotland coach is the best northern hemisphere born coach plying his trade.
Formerly a Scottish player from 1972 to 1979 he was good enough to be awarded eight British Lions Tests in the 1974/1977 tours.
Under his command Scotland won a Grand Slam five nations title in 1990 and in 1999. He coached the Lions to success in Australia in 1989, and again in South Africa in 1997. Even though he lost as coach to the All Blacks in 1993, they did win a game – which remains the only match victory against New Zealand since 1977.
Unlike the ill-fated 2005 tour to New Zealand, where Clive Woodward largely ignored the form book and stayed loyal to his English cohorts. The 2003 World Cup winning coach took 45 players and a back-up team of 21.
McGeechan will only take 35 players and a small coaching team, with Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards confirmed as his direct assistants.
The Lions committee felt that the previous operation was too excessive – and while Woodward had separate midweek and Test teams, this will not occur against South Africa.
“Every single day you want to be working with players to get to know them. That’s why we’ll be one set of coaches for midweek and Saturday sides. We need to give everyone a chance to challenge for a Test spot. We’ve got three World Cup finals to play against the world champions, South Africa, and that unity, that ability to draw together, is critical,” the Scot stated.
Unfortunately, the spectre of club versus country will rear its ugly head – with the 2009 Guinness Premiership final scheduled to take place the same weekend the Lions play the opening game of their tour.
The finger has been pointed by the Lions board that the fault of this lies with England. It was a specific request by the RFU to bring the dates forward one week.
Hopefully this will not impact the preparations for the tour, with McGeechan adamant that all selected Lions players will leave for South Africa as one.
As with all Lions tours, this should be a fascinating series. It is expected that it will be a full strength World Champion South African team lying in wait. Peter De Villiers appears to be making more progress on the field despite his off-field “verbal quips!”
Meanwhile, McGeechan has stated that only fully fit and match hardened Lions will be selected, which puts pressure on players who are, or will be, struggling with injuries.
So what will the team look like?
Well, if the right team is selected, and a culture can quickly be implemented for cohesion, they should threaten the world champions. The warm-up games will be crucial, and if full strength teams build through the provincial matches, there is no reason why the Lions cannot record their first series win in 12 years.
This is who I believe should tour – if fit. A 35-man squad as per final touring numbers:
Fullback: Lee Byrne WAL, Geordan Murphy IRE
Wing: Shane Williams WAL, Topsy Ojo ENG, Mark Cueto ENG, Sean Lamont SCO
Centres: Brian O’Driscoll IRE, Gavin Henson WAL, Luke Fitzgerald IRE, Tom Shanklin WAL
Flyhalf: Stephen Jones WAL, Jonny Wilkinson ENG, James Hook WAL
Scrumhalf: Mike Blair SCO, Dwayne Peel WAL, Danny Care ENG
Number Eight: Andy Powell WAL, Ryan Jones WAL, Jamie Heaslip IRE
Flankers: David Wallace IRE, Martyn Williams WAL, Tom Croft ENG, Jason White SCO,
Locks: Paul O’Connell IRE, Alan Wyn Jones WAL, Donncha O’Callaghan IRE, Steve Borthwick ENG
Props: Phil Vickery ENG, Euan Murray SCO, Marcus Horan IRE, Gethin Jenkins WAL, Adam Jones WAL,
Hooker: Jerry Flannery IRE, Ross Ford SCO, Dylan Hartley ENG
The full tour schedule is now as follows (all times are local):
Saturday, May 30: Highveld XV v Lions in Rustenburg – K-O 3pm
Wednesday, June 3: Golden Lions v Lions at Ellis Park in Johannesburg – K-O 7.10pm
Saturday, June 6: Free State Cheetahs v Lions Bloemfontein – K-O 3pm
Wednesday, June 10: Sharks v Lions in Durban – K-O 7.10pm
Saturday, June 13: Western Province v Lions in Cape Town – K-O 3pm
Tuesday, June 16: Coastal XV v Lions in Port Elizabeth – K-O 3pm (TBC)
Saturday, June 20: South Africa v Lions in Durban – K-O 3pm
Tuesday, June 23: Emerging SA v Lions in Cape Town – K-O 7.10pm
Saturday, June 27: South Africa v Lions in Pretoria – K-O 3pm
Saturday, 4 July: South Africa v Lions at Ellis Park in Johannesburg – K-O 3pm