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!