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!