Can the British and Irish Lions roar in South Africa?
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Just like first girlfriends are fondly remembered, so too are first sightings of touring rugby sides. For me, my first girlfriend in rugby terms was the British and Irish Lions side.
As a small boy, I was part of a big crowd at Athletic Park in Wellington to watch the British Lions (as they were known then) play the All Blacks in 1950.
The vivid red of the Lions jerseys, the way the players put their hands in the pockets of their baggy white shirts and, especially, the brilliant backplay of the Welsh centres, the burly Dr Jack Matthews and the immaculate Blendyn Williams, and the magic of Jackie Kyle, remain with me to this day as treasured memories.
Fast forward now more than fifty years.
The Lions are touring Australia. They are in Canberra for a match against the ACT Brumbies. On the day of the match, my wife and I go to the Australian National Gallery and find we are virtually swamped by middle aged couples in the main wearing the distinctive Lions jerseys.
Four years later another scene fixes itself in my memory, again involving the supporters.
The All Blacks have defeated the Lions at Christchurch in the first Test of the series. The opening seconds of the match featured an outrageous slam-tackle on Brian O’Driscoll. The Lions captain and outstanding centre (in great line of Matthews and Williams) was out of the game and the series virtually before it had started.
The night was cold, with heavy rain coming down like nails. Yet, despite the O’Driscoll incident and the loss, the Lions supporters coming out of the stadium were in good spirits.
There was no bitterness. But there was plenty of singing and rousing choruses of “The Lion roars tonight …”
Now four years on from the New Zealand tour the Lions supporters have begun their trek through South Africa.
On Saturday night on Fox Sports 501 at 11 o’clock the tour opens at Rustenberg. If ever a group of supporters deserved to be rewarded for their loyalty and good humour, and love of their team and rugby, the Lions supporters are that group.
The good omens for them are that the coach Ian McGeechan has a strong record of success in South Africa. He was a Test player on the 1974 tour, which saw the Lions defeat the Springboks. In 1997, he coached the Lions to another series victory over the Springboks.
In that 1997 series, the Springboks scored far more tries than the Lions. But they could not kick their penalties.
If there is any weakness in the probable Springboks side it will be in goal-kicking, where Ruan Pienaar, the favoured five-eighths and kicker, is not in the class of Percy Montgomery or the probable Lions kickers, Ronan O’Gara and Stephen Jones.
The Lions are a touring side brought together every four years. On many tours, notably in 2001 and 2005, the team which is drawn from the Home Unions of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England does not gel.
There are often factions centered around players from one of the countries that is at odds with the management.
In 2001, the disruptive faction was made up of English players who objected to the selection policies of Graham Henry, then the coach of Wales. In 2005, there was a Welsh faction that objected to the perceived England-bias of Sir Clive Woodward, the then coach of England.
McGeechan is aware of the dangers of factionalism on Lions tours. He was the coach of the mid-week Lions in 2005 who were undefeated and, in a sense, represented another faction within the squad.
By now, too, the players who have known only professional rugby in their senior careers are used to playing with players from different countries. McGeechan has praised the way the players have come together as a group in the training sessions in the week before the tour started.
So I would expect that this Lions side will be a united, dedicated squad.
But will its playing strengths be up to defeating the Springboks, who should be a more formidable side than the team that won the Rugby World Cup in 2007?
If you compare the European Cup final between Leinster and Leicester with the Super 14 semi-final between the Bulls and the Crusaders, there can be no doubt about where the quality players reside.
The Bulls looked to be about 20-points better than Leinster.
But will superiority of player talent translate into a series victory for the Springboks? The bookmakers are trying to drum up business by establishing the Springboks as favourites to win 3-0 in the series.
The magic of the Lions is that every four years a team is selected. That team becomes a unique side. Generally these Lions sides, and the 1950 side is a case in point, are less than the sum of their individual parts.
Occasionally, in 1971, 1974, 1989 and 1997, the chemistry is created where a team is greater than the sum of its parts. The question that is going to be answered in the next month or so is whether Ian McGeechan’s Lions are one of those sides.
Personally, I can’t believe that this will happen. But then, I didn’t think the Springboks could win the 2007 Rugby World Cup either.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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