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!