Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Ian McGeechan: Lion Man - Autobiography

Ian McGeechan: Lion Man - autobiography
Ian McGeechan has just released his autobiography entitled Ian McGeechan: Lion Man. Currently it appears to only be available in the UK, but I'm sure it won't be long before it filters through to bookshelves in other countries too.

This should provide some fascinating insights into British rugby in general, and the British Lions in particular, especially given McGeechan's recent announcement that he will not make himself available to be Lions head coach next time around (although thankfully for the Lions he has hinted that he'd like to be involved in an advisory capacity).

You may also be interested in the British Lions Legends piece I did on Ian back in June.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

IRB Brings Rugby into Disrepute

On Monday, the IRB issued a statement regarding the outcome of the disciplinary hearing against the South African Rugby Union and Springbok players in connection with the team wearing "Justice 4" armbands during the third British Lions test. You can read the full IRB statement at the end of this article, but the gist is that the South Africans were found guilty (surprise surprise) of bringing the game of rugby into disrepute, but that the sentences imposed are relatively light due to a number of legal technicalities.

It's no great surprise they were found guilty, since the terms of the enquiry related only to the Springbok response to the citing and subsequent upholding of Bakkies's ban, and ignored the entire point the Springboks were trying to make, namely the perceived inconsistency in sanctions being applied against South African players relative to those from other countries.

"All the players want is consistency"

This is a mantra we hear from coaches, players and commentators with almost monotonous regularity. And it sums up the South African position on the banning of Bakkies Botha perfectly. Consistency is required from not only from match officials, but all the way to the top of the administrative hierarchy. The IRB has had many opportunities since the original incident to climb down off its high horse, address the Springboks' concerns, and seek a solution that would benefit everyone involved in rugby, not to mention enhance their own position as international administrators. Yet they have consistently refused to do so, choosing instead to continue escalating the issue way beyond proportion, all the while continuing to appear biased by not sanctioning similar incidents when the perpetrators are from other teams.

Even now that they have been "vindicated" by the independent review, they can not let it go and wish to press the issue even further by threatening to ban the Springboks from the 2011 World Cup. Can they do it? Well, they probably could - remember South Africa was banned from international competition during the Apartheid years. But the crucial difference then was that the powers-that-be occupied the moral high ground and had massive political support; the same can certainly not be said in this case.

I am no fan of all the petty politics that goes on in SA rugby, but perhaps for once all that experience can be used to benefit the Springboks rather than to hamper them. South Africa is no stranger to standing up against oppressive regimes: the resistance movement struggled for years against an unjust government (which was also supposedly based on the rule of law). Now I don't wish to denigrate the high price paid by many millions of people who were involved in that struggle by comparing it to what amounts to a schoolyard spat; however there are some interesting parallels.

It seems the IRB, much like the Apartheid regime, is happy to use the law when it appears to be in its favour, but shows a distinct contempt for the judicial process by scorning a sentence that is not as punitive as they would like. This smacks of an organisation not looking to uphold the law, but one that expects the law to uphold its own position and punish any who try to challenge its authority.

Guys, you can't have it both ways. If you agree to an independent review, you'd better be prepared to accept its findings. Otherwise how can we take you seriously ever again? You keep alleging that South Africa has brought the game into disrepute by its actions, but in my opinion you have done far greater damage to rugby by your stubborn refusal to address the root issue in all this: why are some players and teams allowed to get away with foul play while others are punished? Instead of your childish posturing, you need to be seen to resolve this for the good of all concerned, and the sooner the better, before irreparable harm is done!

The full IRB statement

"The South African Rugby Union, members of the South Africa squad and team officials have been found guilty of acts of bringing the Game of Rugby into disrepute in breach of the IRB Regulations Relating to the Game.

"The ruling was issued today by an Independent Disciplinary Committee chaired by the John Hansen (New Zealand), Guillermo Tragant (Argentina) and former Australian captain John Eales AM (Australia). The independence of the Committee is a feature of the IRB judicial system which is respected by the IRB and its constituent members.

"The action arises from the South Africa national team and management wearing armbands during the third Test against the British & Irish Lions on July 4 as a protest action following the upholding of Bakkies Botha’s two-week suspension by an independent Appeal Committee for dangerously charging into a ruck without binding onto a player.

"The guilty verdicts follow a misconduct hearing before the Independent Committee which was held in Dublin on August 10. During the hearing, the Committee heard submissions and evidence from SARU and members of the South Africa national team and team management (including John Smit and Peter de Villiers, the Springbok captain and coach respectively), before retiring to consider its verdict and sanction.

"While, for technical legal reasons, the Independent Committee dismissed the Misconduct charges under Regulation 17, the committee expressly found that on the merits of the case the actions of SARU, its players and team management 'brought the game into disrepute, criticised the judicial process and was misconduct'. The Independent Committee separately noted 'such misconduct to be serious' in nature and commented that 'there has been no formal apology, acknowledgement, contrition or clarification from either the players or the SARU themselves'.

"The Independent Committee made it very clear in its ruling that 'the playing arena is no place for protest' and that the wearing of the armbands 'showed a serious lack of respect and consideration for their opponents'. It was clear that 'If players choose to wear on their uniforms armbands or other emblems which bring the game into disrepute, then they have breached that Regulation [11]'.

"The Independent Committee criticised SARU 'because they allowed the Game and the IRB to be brought into disrepute by not only by failing to attempt to prevent this protest, but by approving of it and effectively consenting to [...] conduct which was prejudicial to the best interests of the IRB and of the Game'.

"The Independent Committee therefore imposed a fine of £10,000 (ZAR127,000) on SARU, £200 (ZAR2,500) against each of the other players who wore the protest armbands and £1,000 (ZAR12,700) against John Smit who the Committee determined as captain of the South Africa team has greater role model responsibilities.

"The Independent Committee was unanimous in its view that, had it not been for the legal technicalities (including the fact that the Committee felt it had to take a 'necessarily strict interpretation' of certain aspects of Regulation 17), both SARU and the Springbok players and management would have faced much more serious sanctions, including a more severe fine in the case of SARU and the suspension of the Springbok players and management from the Rugby World Cup 2011 (such sanction to have been suspended in the absence of further acts of Misconduct before then).

"The Independent Committee ended its judgment with a clear statement that it believes its decision will deter 'all rugby players from adopting such an unwise and ill considered way to make their feelings clear to the IRB, or the general rugby watching public'.

"The IRB had sought significant sanctions in this case which was unique in Rugby terms, dealing collectively with a Union, its national representative team and senior management who acted in unison without regard for the best interests of the Game.

"Whilst welcoming the guilty verdicts, the IRB is extremely disappointed at the level of sanctions imposed against the South African Rugby Union and its players in light of the clear findings that they have brought the Game of Rugby into disrepute and acted in a manner which is prejudicial to the best interests of the IRB and the Game of Rugby.

"The IRB is giving urgent and serious consideration to the decision of the Independent Committee and the further options available to it, which include whether or not to bring an appeal against the level of sanctions imposed by the Committee. This ruling will be taken into consideration along with the recent Burger and Parisse eye-gouging cases, as part of the IRB’s ongoing review of Regulation 17.

"The IRB works tirelessly with all 116 Member Unions and key stakeholders to ensure the safety of players and the reputation of the Game is protected.

"The IRB will be making no further comment on this case while it considers its options."

Thursday, 9 July 2009

John Smit's "Call of 99"

In the third test of the 2009 British Lions series, the Springboks demonstrated their solidarity with team mate Bakkies Botha (who was suspended for foul play in the second test) by wearing white "justice 4 Bakkies" armbands. The Springboks have made it clear that they feel Botha is being victimised for an action which is a routine part of the game and rarely gets penalised, let alone results in a suspension to the guilty party.

In doing so South African rugby has, perhaps unwittingly, issued its own Call of 99. Back in 1974 it was the British Lions standing up to the bullying tactics of the Springboks; in 2009 it is the Springboks standing up to what they perceive as the bullying tactics of the International Rugby Board (IRB)'s disciplinary process. One wonders if they are prepared for the fallout that may ensue.

Willie John McBride's men operated under the (correct) assumption that the referee of that match would be unlikely to issue red cards if the whole team was involved. As an interesting aside, the South Africa-Canada match in the 1995 World Cup - also in Port Elizabeth - was played in a similarly mean spirit and did result in three red cards being issued.

The difference with the current confrontation is that:

  1. the Springboks are up against their own sport's governing body, and

  2. the drama is unfolding at a more considered pace, behind closed doors, allowing the participants plenty of time to consider their response.

Intimidation and domination in rugby

The essence of rugby is simple and unsubtle: the game is won by physically and mentally dominating your opponent. However, perhaps rugby administrators need to realise that that mentality does not necessarily translate well into the boardroom. Whereas rugby is a game of winners and losers, in business and politics win-win outcomes are generally more desirable. This inevitably involves an element of compromise, but generally leads to agreements that all parties can live with.

It will be interesting to see how the IRB handle the matter. Early indications are that they will take the Springboks on up front, as it were, evidenced by reports that the South African Rugby Union will be charged with bringing the game into disrepute. That may well be a fight that the IRB will win, but it will be seen as an opportunity missed: to clarify the letter and application of rugby's laws in this area, and to rise above petty power-plays, for the good of the game and all who enjoy it, players and spectators alike.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

3rd Test: British Lions 28 - 9 South Africa

The empire struck back yesterday in the third and final test of the 2009 British Lions tour to South Africa. The Springboks may have been playing for justice, but this time they were out of luck and soundly beaten by a better team on the day.

"Justice 4"

The Springboks came out wearing white armbands with the words "Justice 4" printed on them - a reference to the citing and subsequent suspension of Bakkies Botha after an innocuous challenge in the second test which unfortunately left Adam Jones with a dislocated shoulder. The South African camp clearly feel that Botha has been unfairly treated by being suspended for what they feel is a routine part of the game. This was nicely illustrated in the 36th minute of the match when Jamie Heaslip produced a carbon copy clear-out which didn't raise an eyebrow from any of the officials, and almost certainly won't result in a citing (unless the Springboks do so to make a point).


The Springboks may have seen it as a bad omen to have Stuart Dickinson reffing the match - prior to which they had only won two of the last eight games in which he was the on-field referee. The most contentious issue of the match for the Springboks came in the 76th minute when wing Odwa Ndungane's foot was adjudged to be in touch in the act of scoring, by the third umpire. Not that this was Stu Dickinson's fault - even he seemed surprised, as he'd already stated that the player had not been in touch, and had asked the third umpire simply to check the grounding of the ball. Still, what goes around comes around - in the previous match the Lions were also denied in very similar circumstances.

The boot's on the other foot

In fact, in many ways the Lions beat the Springboks at their own game yesterday with their stifling defence, scoring from quick turnovers and interceptions, and general intensity. They created more scoring opportunities, and were more successful at converting those opportunities into points than the Boks. And they will not fail to spot the irony in the Ndungane incident, and also Zane Kirchner's almost-try in which the Lions managed to dislodge the ball as he was crossing the line - echoes of the first test.

Ugo Monye achieved a measure of redemption for those first-test shortcomings by producing a long-range interception try reminiscent of Bryan Habana or Jean de Villiers (neither of whom were included in the Springbok team). And Shane Williams on the other wing looked back to his best, producing some magical touches and scoring two excellent tries in the process.

Forward domination

This was built on a good forward display, which saw the Lions in the ascendency. They scrummed better, defended the Springbok rolling maul much better than in previous tests, and employed it to good effect themselves at times. This produced a platform which gave the backs more space to play.

There was also some canny, but slightly cynical play at times to disrupt the South Africans: Simon Shaw produced a block which resulted in the first Shane Williams try; Martyn Williams was a real nuisance, preventing the Springboks from taking quick restarts - once this resulted in him being picked up and unceremoniously dumped by Heinrich Brussow and then Pierre Spies. The Boks may rightly feel a bit aggrieved that the referee allowed them to get away with this sort of behaviour. A similar indicent in the final ten minutes saw the Lions being awarded a penalty right in front of the posts when Brussow similarly tossed Mike Phillips to the ground for preventing them taking a quick option. One would not like to get on Mr Brussow's wrong side in a dark alleyway...


The Springboks may count themselves unlucky that some decisions that went in their favour in the first two matches went against them yesterday. But on balance the better team won on the day. In the end the British Lions needed to win more, to end their record losing streak and restore some pride to the jersey.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Teams for 3rd British Lions Test

Both the British Lions and the Springboks have made numerous changes to their teams for this Saturday's third and final test at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. Whilst the result of the match won't have any impact on the series outcome - with South Africa enjoying an unassailable 2-0 lead - there is still plenty of pride to play for. The Springboks would love nothing better than a 3-0 whitewash, whilst the tourists will be desperate to bring some respectability to the scoreline, and perhaps more importantly, break the Lions' 7 test losing streak.

British Lions team

The Lions have made seven changes from last week's team: Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery come in for the injured Welsh props, Shane Williams for Luke Fitzgerald, Riki Flutey for Jamie Roberts, and Tommy Bowe moves into outside centre bringing in Ugo Monye on the wing. Joe Worsley and Martyn Williams get a start in place of Tom Croft and David Wallace respectively.

It's still a good team, but unlikely to exhibit the midfield dominance we've seen in the first two tests.

15. Rob Kearney
14. Ugo Monye
13. Tommy Bowe
12. Riki Flutey
11. Shane Williams
10. Stephen Jones
9. Mike Phillips
8. Jamie Heaslip
7. Martyn Williams
6. Joe Worsley
5. Paul O'Connell (captain)
4. Simon Shaw
3. Phil Vickery
2. Matthew Rees
1. Andrew Sheridan

Reserves: Ross Ford, John Hayes, Alun-Wyn Jones, David Wallace, Tom Croft, Harry Ellis, James Hook

Springbok team

The Springboks have made ten changes from last week's starting lineup: in the forwards Chiliboy Ralepelle gets a start at hooker, Johann Muller replaces the suspended Bakkies Botha, Heinrich Brussow is in for Schalk Burger, and Ryan Kankowski for Pierre Spies. The only backline player to retain his place is scrumhalf Fourie du Preez; he is joined by Morne Steyn, Jongi Nokwe, Wynand Olivier, Jacque Fourie, Odwa Ndungane, and watch out for debutant Zane Kirchner, who had a great Super 14 and who has been destined for higher honours for a while now.

In spite of all the changes, it's hard to see this as a second-string team. Competition for Springbok test places is high at the moment, which can only be a good thing with the looming Tri Nations series.

15. Zane Kirchner
14. Odwa Ndungane
13. Jaque Fourie
12. Wynand Olivier
11. Jongi Nokwe
10. Morné Steyn
9. Fourie du Preez
8. Ryan Kankowski
7. Juan Smith
6. Heinrich Brüssow
5. Victor Matfield
4. Johann Muller
3. John Smit (captain)
2. Chiliboy Ralepelle
1. Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira

Reserves: Bismarck du Plessis, Gurthrö Steenkamp, Deon Carstens, Steven Sykes, Pierre Spies, Ruan Pienaar, Francois Steyn

There has been plenty of spice in the series so far, both on and off the field. In particular, the Lions have been pointing a lot of fingers in the media regarding what they perceive as the Springboks' dirty play. There's no doubt it's been a physical affair, and I for one can't see that being any different come Saturday.

Kickoff is at 3pm SA time (2pm GMT). Enjoy the match!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

2nd Test: British Lions 25 - 28 South Africa

The Springboks edged the British Lions in a thrilling test match at Loftus Versveld yesterday to clinch the 2009 series. Both teams were out to win the match, and as a result it was played with intensity, and at times fearsome ferocity, which was borne out by the number of injuries sustained. In the end though, the Springboks created a few more scoring opportunities, and in the words of Springbok captain John Smit in the post-match interview, "it was ironic" that the game was won at the death by a kick - a reference to the 1997 Lions series when Jeremy Guscott secured the series for the Lions with a drop-kick.

Forward battle

The British Lions made no secret of the fact that they were out to shore up the scrum after the 1st test horror show, and they certainly achieved their goal. This was brilliantly illustrated in the 18th minute when Adam Jones gave "Beast" Mtawarira a touch of his own medicine in a South African 5m attacking scrum. Apart from that incident the scrums were fairly even - a good contest - until uncontested scrums early in the second half. The Lions' defence of the rolling maul was also a lot more effective than last week, and the Springboks were unable to profit from it. The Boks probably had the edge in the lineout, and managed to poach a couple of Lions throw-ins, but the loose exchanges perhaps belonged to the Lions, with more turnovers.

In general it was a very even contest, which made for a very exciting test match. There was certainly a lot of niggle in the game from the very start when Springbok openside Schalk Burger, playing in his 50th test match after an injury layoff, was picked up apparently gouging at the eyes of Luke Fitzgerald and rewarded with a yellow card. Welcome back Schalk, the Boks have missed you! Apart from that there was a bit of pushing and shoving here and there, but nothing too serious.


A number of players were injured during the game, notably both Lions props going off within minutes of each other early in the second half. Of the two, Adam Jones looked more serious, with a shoulder injury. It was a pity, as this resulted in uncontested scrums for the rest of the match, and is possibly one of the reasons the Springboks were allowed back into the game and get more front-foot ball.

At the hour mark, Springbok coach Peter de Villiers turned to his bench again, with much more success than last week. But Danie Rossouw didn't last long as he was involved in a horrible collision with Brian O'Driscoll that left him unable to stand up. Sadly for BOD, he was not unscathed and had to leave a few minutes later, only a couple of minutes after his midfield partner, Jamie Roberts. The resulting reshuffle of the Lions backline no doubt also didn't help their cause, either on attack or defence.


Stephen Jones had his kicking boots on as usual, and kept the Lions scoreboard ticking over with five penalties, a drop goal and a conversion. His opposite number, Ruan Pienaar, had quite the opposite game, missing several kicks, and suffering the indignity of the home supporters chanting "Morne, Morne, Morne", calling for his substitution. Morne Steyn, when he was finallly brought on, put in an impeccable performance and secured victory for his team with a 55m penalty kick in injury time. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he starts at flyhalf in the 3rd test.


Both teams played the match with great commitment, and a 25-all draw (which looked on the cards until that final penalty) would perhaps have been a more satisfactory result, and would have left the Lions with something to play for in the final match. Sadly, it was not to be, but the Lions can hold their heads up high, having pushed the World Champions all the way.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Teams for 2nd British Lions test

The teams have been announced for what should be a humdinger of a match between the British Lions and the Springboks at Loftus Versveld on Saturday. The second test of the three test series on this 2009 British Lions tour, it is a must-win for the Lions to keep their dream alive. The Springboks on the other hand have the opportunity to secure the series. So there's all to play for!

Springbok team

The Springboks have opted for a largely unchanged team, as you would expect after last week's victory. Schalk Burger comes into the match-day XV in place of Heinrich Brussow, who drops down onto the bench. Brussow played very well in the last match, and may feel a little aggrieved at having to make way for Burger; however I'm sure we'll seem him come on in the second half. Burger on the other hand will be looking for a big performance to cement his place in the team after being out with injury for awhile.

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. Schalk Burger
5. Victor Matfield
4. Bakkies Botha
3. John Smit (Captain)
2. Bismarck du Plessis
1. Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira

Reserves: Chiliboy Ralepelle, Deon Carstens, Andries Bekker, Danie Rossouw, Heinrich Brussow, Jaque Fourie, Morne Steyn

British Lions team

The Lions have made a number of changes, as you would expect. Rob Kearney replaces injured fullback Lee Byrne, and Ugo Monye makes way for Luke Fitzgerald. Many thought that Shane Williams may have done enough on Tuesday to get a start, but he is on the bench.

But the "bulk" of the changes are in the pack: Simon Shaw, Adam Jones and Matthew Rees replace Alun-Wyn Jones, Phil Vickery and Lee Mears respectively. The Lions will be hoping for a far more stable and competitive platform to play from than they achieved last Saturday.

15. Rob Kearney
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Brian O'Driscoll
12. Jamie Roberts
11. Luke Fitzgerald
10. Stephen Jones
9. Mike Phillips
8. Jamie Heaslip
7. David Wallace
6. Tom Croft
5. Paul O'Connell (captain)
4. Simon Shaw
3. Adam Jones
2. Matthew Rees
1. Gethin Jenkins

Reserves: Andrew Sheridan, Ross Ford, Alun-Wyn Jones, Martyn Williams, Harry Ellis, Ronan O'Gara, Shane Williams

Kick-off is at 15:00 local time (14:00 GMT).

Saturday, 20 June 2009

1st Test: British Lions 21 - 26 South Africa

Willie John McBride was right: the forward battle, and in particular the scrum, would be of vital importance in the battle between the British Lions and the Springboks. Unfortunately for the Lions, it was South Africa that heeded this advice and put in a dominant display to out-muscle the Lions in the first test, taking it by 26 points to 21.

Rusty Springboks?

All the pre-match speculation about the Boks lacking match practice was dispelled from the kick-off - in fact they looked very sharp and scored an excellent try by skipper John Smith within the first five minutes. The Springbok forwards were dominant throughout the first 50 minutes, winning turnovers on the Lions scrum and lineout several times. This culminated in another superb try shortly after half time when the Springbok pack repeatedly employed the rolling maul to great effect, with number 6 Heinrich Brussow eventually crashing over for their second try.

Missed opportunities

For the British Lions, the match was mostly about missed opportunities. Stephen Jones missed two kickable penalties in the first half which would have kept his team in touch. And by the end of the game, the Lions had missed out on three golden try-scoring opportunites, thanks to some excellent last-ditch goal-line defence by the Springboks. If even one of these chances had been converted into points, the outcome of the match could have been very different.

Spirited fightback

After Brussow's try 10 minutes after half-time, the Lions looked dead and buried at 26-7. But then coach Peter de Villiers started bringing on his substitutes and the Springboks lost momentum. This, coupled with some excellent attacking play by the Lions almost saw them complete a remarkable comeback to steal the game in the dying minutes. But the Springboks managed to hang onto their lead and claim the first test, despite looking shaken towards the end of the game, and conceding a string of penalties in their own half in their efforts to deny the tourists. The home team will do well to ensure they play for the full eighty minutes next week.

Lions positives

The match was certainly not without positives for the Lions. They managed several excellent line breaks, mostly instigated by centres Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll who have forged a formidable partnership in the few short weeks they have been playing together. If the Springboks were dominant in the forwards, the Lions were equally so in midfield - this is surely an area the Boks will be desperate to address in the run-up to the second test next week.

The Lions will take a lot of heart from their performance today, and will be deperate to square the series at Loftus next Saturday. It's certainly within their capability, but will be no easy task at the Blue Bulls' fortress.

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Sunday, 14 June 2009

British Lions tour so far

Now we've reached the midway point of the 2009 British Lions tour, it's time for a review of their performances so far, and a look ahead to the test matches. Fair to say it's been a mixed bag in terms of performances, but an unbeaten record speaks for itself.

We saw a shaky start against the Royal XV, which should have been the weakest opposition, followed by good wins over the Golden Lions, Cheetahs, Sharks and Western Province. The Lions have had the edge over the star-unstudded provincial lineups they have faced, and we have seen a number of players stake their claim for the starting test team.

British Lions test team

Tommy Bowe and Ugo Monye have been the best of the wings, while Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll look a formidable centre combination. And at half-back Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones have looked solid.

In the forwards things seem more up for grabs. Phil Vickery had a good game against Western Province, as did the back row of Joe Worsley, Martyn Williams and Andy Powell. But Ian McGeechan's primary concern will be to ensure he picks a balanced pack.

No Springboks

I think it's a great pity that Pieter de Villiers opted to withdraw the Springbok players from their provincial outfits, which has had the effect of devaluing the warmup games. Half-empty stadia have been testament to this.

No doubt De Villiers has wanted to have as much time as possible to get the Springboks ready for the tests, and has also been keen to avoid injuries to key players. However, there is a wide-spread belief that the Springboks will go into the first test undercooked, while the British Lions will have had six warm-up games to prepare against weaker opposition.

Perhaps the Springbok camp is hoping the Lions camp will show their hand tactically in the warmup games while the Springboks have the luxury of playing their cards closer to the chest. But it's unlikely there will be too many surprises in the Springboks' patterns anyhow - winning in rugby is not necessarily about your opponents not knowing what you're up to, but simply about them being unable to stop you regardless.

It has a lot to do with execution in the heat of battle, and at the moment the British Lions are the ones getting all the practice!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

British Lions Legends: Ian McGeechan

Ian McGeechan, coach of 2009 British Lions
Ian McGeechan, head coach of the British Lions is famous for those quiet motivational speeches that make you believe you can do anything, thanks to the 'Living with Lions' series which covers the victorious 1997 British Lions tour of South Africa. Apart from his tactical nous, I believe it is this ability to motivate his players that makes the former school teacher the most dangerous man in the British Lions dressing room.

Mr Lions

McGeechan is not called Mr Lions for nothing: the ex-Scottish international played four tests each on the 1974 and 1977 British Lions tours. But it is as a coach that he has truly made his mark: he has been a member of the coaching staff on every British Lions tour since 1989, with the exception of the 2001 tour to Australia.

And ominously for South Africa, some of his greatest moments have come on tours to South Africa. The 1974 "Call of 99" tour on which the Lions remained unbeaten is arguably their finest hour. But the 1997 tour may well be more satisfying for McGeechan, as the chief architect of the victory.

British Lions tour 2009

Which brings us to the current tour. After a full year of preparation, you can bet Geech and his team know the Springbok players and patterns intimately - perhaps better than they themselves!

So, will Ian McGeechan once again find the winning formula to defeat the reigning world champions? Time will tell, but if I were a betting man and had to choose between McGeechan and Pieter de Villiers, his South African counterpart, I know where I'd put my money!

Friday, 5 June 2009

Springbok squad for British Lions tests

The Springbok squad to face the 2009 British Lions was announced a few days ago. Overall there were not too many surprises, the selectors opting to name a formidable and experienced squad - many of the players were involved in the victorious 2007 World Cup campaign. As usual in any squad announcement, there were a few players who would feel unlucky not to be picked - Zane Kirchner and Stefan Terblanche, to name but a couple, but overall the squad has a balanced feel about it.

There are two uncapped players in the squad: Morne Steyn who has looked solid for the Blue Bulls this season, and Earl Rose, who has looked anything but. This is proving to be a particularly controversial selection, with many feeling that Rose simply is not good enough to play at this level. That he is talented is clear, but it is felt that he makes far too many silly mistakes.

Earl Rose has played age-group rugby under Springbok coach Pieter de Villiers, who obviously feels he is worth investing in. However this whole controversy threatens to assume Luke Watson-esque proportions, with allegations of favouritism being hurled around. Unfortunately the player never wins out in these circumstances - the best Rose can hope for is that he silences his critics on the pitch if indeed he is given an opportunity in the tests.

The Springbok squad comprises 10 players each from the Sharks and Blue Bulls, four from the Western Province Stormers, and two each from the Cheetahs and (Golden) Lions.

Springbok squad to face the British Lions

John Smit (Captain)
Victor Matfield (Vice-Captain)
Andries Bekker
Bakkies Botha
Schalk Burger
Deon Carstens
Bismarck du Plessis
Ryan Kankowski
Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira
Chiliboy Ralepelle
Danie Rossouw
Juan Smith
Pierre Spies
Gurthrö Steenkamp

Jean de Villiers
Fourie du Preez
Jaque Fourie
Bryan Habana
Adi Jacobs
Ricky Januarie
Odwa Ndungane
Jongi Nokwe
Wynand Olivier
Ruan Pienaar
JP Pietersen
Earl Rose
Frans Steyn
Morné Steyn

Given the British Lions's recent strong showing against the Golden Lions, anticipation is building for a competitive test series. This is one pundit who suspects it may be a lot closer than many in the southern hemisphere are predicting!

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

British Lions to play under ELVs

The IRB recently endorsed a recommendation to incorporate 10 of 13 Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) into the official rugby union laws. These are to be implemented globally from 23 May 2009, just in time for the 2009 British Lions tour to South Africa!

Let's hope Geech and his team saw this coming, or the Lions could be at a significant disadvantage - they've been playing under the old laws in the Six Nations, Guiness Premiership and Heineken Cup while the southern hemisphere boys have been playing the ELVs for the last couple of years!

ELVs not adopted

The following ELVs have not been adopted:
  • Law 17 - Maul - Head and shoulders not to be lower than hips.

  • Law 17 - Maul - Pulling down the maul.

  • Law 19 - Freedom for each team to determine lineout numbers.

Probably the most significant one there is not being able to pull down the maul - one suspects this could be a key weapon as both the Lions and Springboks are likely to field big packs and adopt a forward-oriented approach, at least initially.

The other significant decision was not to implement the system of awarding free kicks rather than full penalties for most infringements, which should bring the kickers into the game more, and keep defences honest in the strike zone.

The following ELVs will be adopted

  • Law 06 - Assistant referees able to assist referees in any way the referee requires.

  • Law 19 - If a team puts the ball back in their own 22 and the ball is subsequently kicked directly into touch there is no gain in ground.

  • Law 19 - A quick throw may be thrown in straight or towards the throwing team's goal line.

  • Law 19 - The receiver at the lineout must be two metres back away from the lineout.

  • Law 19 - The player who is in opposition to the player throwing in the ball must stand in the area between the five metre line and touch line and must be two metres from the line of touch and at least two metres from the lineout.

  • Law 19 - Lineout players may pre-grip a jumper before the ball is thrown in.

  • Law 19 - The lifting of lineout jumpers is permitted.

  • Law 20 - Introduction of an offside line five metres behind the hindmost feet of the scrum.

  • Law 20 - Scrum-half offside line at the scrum.

  • Law 20 - The corner posts are no longer considered to be touch in goal except when the ball is grounded against the post.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

British Lions Record in South Africa

In anticipation of the 2009 British Lions rugby tour to South Africa, I thought it would be interesting to review the results of previous Lions tours to South Africa. As they say in the financial world "past performance is no guarantee of future returns"; still, if nothing else, an appreciation of the past can enhance enjoyment of the present.

British Lions Tour 1924

Although there were several British tours to South Africa prior to 1924, this was the first time they were to be known as the Lions. The team experienced a number of injuries, which contributed to them winning only 9 of their 21 matches, including defeat in all tests.

British Lions Tour 1938

In 1938 the Boks were the unofficial world champions, having beaten both New Zealand and Australia in their own back yards the previous year. Predictably the hosts won the first two tests comfortably, but were stunned when the Lions managed to win the third.

British Lions Tour 1955

The 1955 Lions produced some thrilling running rugby to share the series with the mighty Springboks 2-2. In so doing they severly diminished the Boks' aura of invincibility.

British Lions Tour 1962

In contrast, the Lions adopted a far more forwards-oriented approach on the 1962 tour, but although they matched the Springbok forwards, the backs were unable to utilise possession effectively, and the Lions went down 0-3 after drawing the first test.

British Lions Tour 1968

1968 saw a repeat scoreline, with the tourists losing the test series 0-3, having to content themselves with a single draw against the Boks.

British Lions Tour 1974

This was arguably the Lions' finest hour, remaining unbeaten on the tour, the only blemish on their perfect record being a draw in the final test. The team, led by inspirational captain Willie John McBride refused to back down to the Springboks' physical intimidation, and in fact seized the initiative with their famous 99 call. Interestingly, McBride has recently hinted that this may be the key to winning the 2009 tests too - not out-and-out fisticuffs of course, but that the battle will be won and lost in the scrums.

British Lions Tour 1980

1980 was a turbulent time in South Africa's history, and the tour went ahead in spite of opposition from the British government and various pressure groups opposed to the Apartheid system. In contrast, the South African government was all too keen to "keep politics out of sport"! Unfortunately the touring party experienced a number of serious injuries on tour which contributed to a 1-3 series loss.

British Lions Tour 1997

By the 1997 tour, Apartheid was a thing of the past, and the Springboks were reigning world champions after winning the 1995 World Cup at the first attempt. In spite of being underdogs and scoring fewer tries than the Boks though, the Lions managed a 2-1 series win in the tests.

British Lions Tour 2009

And that brings us to the eagerly-anticipated 2009 tour. That history is not yet written, and as interesting as it is to look back at previous tours, once the players run out onto the pitch, past results count for very little. But there is no doubt the world champion Springboks will want to set the record straight after losing the 1997 test series. The question is: will the Lions have the players, tactics and self-belief to build on that success? Time will tell...

Sunday, 26 April 2009

British Lions 2009 Squad Announcement

The touring squad for the 2009 British Lions rugby tour to South Africa was announced on Tuesday, ending weeks of speculation about which players would get the nod. For most there were not too many surprises regarding who was included, but one or two names were notable by their absence. However, most pundits seem to agree that it's a well-balanced squad with players being picked on recent form in the Six Nations and Guiness Premiership.

Not surprisingly, the squad is dominated by players from Ireland and Wales, the two standout teams in this year's Six Nations. It is also clear that the selectors have tried to pick existing combinations, which would seem prudent given the limited amount of preparation time before the tour kicks off in just over a month.

British Lions touring squad

The following 37 players have been selected for the British Lions tour of 2009:

Fullback: Lee Byrne (Wales), Rob Kearney (Ireland)
Wing: Shane Williams (Wales), Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), Ugo Monye (England), Luke Fitzgerald (Ireland), Tommy Bowe (Ireland)
Centre: Tom Shanklin (Wales), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Keith Earls (Ireland), Riki Flutey (England)
FlyHalf: Ronan O'Gara (Ireland), Stephen Jones (Wales)
Scrumhalf: Mike Phillips (Wales), Harry Ellis (England), Tomas O'Leary (Ireland)

No.8: Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Andy Powell (Wales)
Flank: David Wallace (Ireland), Stephen Ferris (Ireland), Alan Quinlan (Ireland), Joe Worsley (England), Martyn Williams (Wales)
Lock: Alun Wyn-Jones (Wales), Paul O'Connell (Ireland), Donncha O'Callaghan (Ireland), Simon Shaw (England), Nathan Hines (Scotland)
Prop: Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales), Andrew Sheridan (England), Phil Vickery (England), Euan Murray (Scotland)
Hooker: Jerry Flannery (Ireland), Lee Mears (England), Matthew Rees (Wales)

The side will be captained by Ireland's Paul O'Connell.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

British Lions Tour: physical confrontation without foul play

The South African Springboks have long been known as one of the most physical - some would say dirty - teams in international rugby. There certainly have been some unsavoury incidents involving South African teams over the years, none more so than the 1974 Lions tour when the Lions famously employed their "99 call" to combat the Springboks' off-the-ball tactics:

In recent years however, the International Rugby Board has done a good job of cleaning up rugby, assisted by advances in video technology, the sin bin, and the use of citing commissioners to mete out punishment for foul play after the game. Stuff still happens - rugby is a confrontational contact sport after all - but rarely on the scale seen here.

Sin Binning and Sending Off

Teams and players are generally a lot more circumspect these days - England's 2002 demolition of the Springboks at Twickenham clearly demonstrated the effect of a red card early in a game. England would probably have won that match anyway, but certainly not by the record margin they achieved if the Springboks had not had to play the majority of the match with 14 men.

Evidence suggests that even having a player receive a yellow card and being sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes usually results in points against his team, often from the accompanying penalty, but also from the physical advantage it gives the opposition. And even if points aren't scored within the period of the suspension, it's likely that the extra effort expended by the rest of the team to cover for the missing player takes a toll later on in the match.

Physical Domination in Rugby

But while we will hopefully not see any punching or blatant foul play during the 2009 British Lions tour, physical domination of the opposition is still a fundamental of the game, and we should expect no quarter to be asked or given by either side. In recent years the Springboks have not often strayed too far from their traditional pattern of play, based on a solid foundation of forward play to get over the advantage line and creating space out wide for their classy backs. When they have experimented with playing a more expansive game, they have invariably come unstuck.

It remains to be seen what tactics the British Lions of 2009 will employ, but they will need to at least match the Springboks in the scrums, lineouts and at the breakdown if they are to control the play.

Friday, 20 March 2009

British Lions Tour 2009 Fixtures

In case you haven't heard (where have you been?), the British and Irish Lions rugby team is about to embark on its 2009 tour of South Africa. The eagerly awaited event kicks off the first of its 10 matches in a little over two months from now. Here are the tour fixtures:

British Lions Tour Fixtures

30 MayRoyal XVRoyal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
3 JuneGolden LionsCoca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
6 JuneCheetahsVodacom Park, Bloemfontein
10 JuneSharksABSA Stadium, Durban
13 JuneWestern ProvinceNewlands, Cape Town
16 JuneCoastal XVNelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
20 JuneSpringboksABSA Stadium, Durban
23 JuneEmerging SpringboksNewlands, Cape Town
27 JuneSpringboksLoftus Versfeld, Pretoria
4 JulySpringboksCoca-Cola Park, Johannesburg

As usual, it's a mix of matches against some of the top provincial teams and some "development" fixtures, culminating in a three test series against the Springboks (although whether or not they'll still be called the Springboks by then is anyone's guess, but that's a topic for a different day).

No Blue Bulls fixture

There is one provincial team that's notable for its absence from the fixture list: the Blue Bulls of Pretoria, the traditional powerhouse of South African rugby. This seems to be the result of a compromise with FIFA, the South African Football association, as the Lions Rugby tour co-incides with the Confederation Cup, which is seen as an important dress rehearsal for South Africa's hosting of the Football World Cup in 2011. No doubt this has presented many logistical problems to the organisers of both events, but I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling somewhat disappointed that we won't get to see a match-up between the British Lions and the star-studded Blue Bulls outfit on this tour.

Apart from that though, this promises to be a very tough tour for the British and Irish players. They'll be up against four of South Africa's top professional teams in the Golden Lions, Cheetahs, Sharks and Western Province, all of which play in the Super 14, and have Springbok representatives in their ranks.

Playing rugby at altitude

Another challenge teams touring South Africa face is the varying altitude: in this series the first 3 matches are all on the highveld, the next 5 at the coast, then crucially, the last 2 tests are back at altitude. All else being equal, this could give the Springboks the edge in the series.

Past Lions tour results

All things considered, the touring British Lions appear to be up against it on this tour. The Springboks are the reigning world champions, and whilst their 2008 season was a bit up and down, there were some strong performances against good opposition. The Lions, on the other hand, had a disasterous tour of New Zealand in 2005, and some of the players on that tour are likely to be going to South Africa this time too. One wonders how they will respond. Crucially though, the British Lions did win the last series in South Africa in 1997 (the Springboks were the current world champions then too), and another interesting parallel with that tour is that Ian McGeechan is once again the coach.

These are just some of the reasons why I'll be following the tour with great interest. And once the teams run out onto the field, past results count for very little. As in the financial world, past performance is no guarantee of future success!