British & Irish Lions
The Lions really need a tough game
John Taylor
June 11, 2009

Sorry to be a party pooper but I've yet to feel the vibes. All the pre-tour hype about how the whole of South Africa has been waiting for the Lions to arrive appears to be just that - HYPE!

Bloemfontein - where let's face it, there's not much else to do - was half empty on Saturday and only 21,000 turned up to watch last night. There was some atmosphere at Kings Park, sorry the ABSA Stadium, but that had more to do with the Durban party ethic than any real belief that we were going to see a humdinger of a game.

The problem, of course, is the change of mind by the Springbok management. When I was here three months ago John Allen, the former Scotland and South Africa hooker, was full of hope that his beloved Sharks would give the Lions a reception hotter than any of the pepper steaks on the hundreds of braais out on the back pitches because they were going to be able to call on their international stars.

But then Peter de Villiers, the Springboks coach, called them all into training camp and released just three who needed game time after injuries. Two of those subsequently failed a fitness test and only veteran prop, Deon Carstens actually took the field. You could feel the lack of fizz in the air as some of the Natal legends met at a charity bash on Tuesday night. They knew it was a non-contest.

Sure, the young Sharks gave it a go but there was never a sniff of an upset even when the Lions were bungling chance after chance in the first half. They might have looked impotent but they were dominating to such an extent a win was inevitable. Allen felt the Springbok selectors had missed a trick in 1997 by not making life tougher for the tourists in the provincial games. He believes that allowed the Lions a chance to gain some real momentum which held them in good stead in the Test series.

'We were the better side,' he still maintains. But they built up a tremendous camaraderie and, because we didn't have a kicker either, that was just enough to swing things in their favour.'

It looks as if the Lions will have an armchair ride again this time. There is no match against the Bulls, the new Super 14 champions, and with the Boks squad members out of the equation the only really competitive game will be against the Emerging Springboks between the first and second Tests. That is not good for the Lions either. They can concentrate hard on improving combinations and continuing to bed down as a team but they cannot take anything very meaningful from the games.

The programmes are full of features chronicling the great battles of the past but there is definitely a feeling here that everybody is treading water waiting for the real action to start.

"There is definitely a feeling here that everybody is treading water waiting for the real action to start."

And that is not what Lions tours are supposed to be about. Of course times have changed but there is no point in the Lions being billed as the last great international touring side if the tour itself does not live up to that billing. Some of the British and Irish supporters already feel short changed and have said they will think twice about coming out for the preliminaries next time.

In March I saw the Bulls play the Stormers in front of a packed house of 55,000 people. It was a great rugby occasion, a thrilling, vibrant match with both sides celebrating an age old rivalry - no quarter asked or given.

The chance to down the Lions used to invoke every bit as much passion. It will be there in the Tests, of course, but at the moment it is a phoney war.

The Lions need testing. The spirit in the camp is terrific, there can be no doubting that, but the form of some players must be causing concern and rediscovering the old maul laws is not going as smoothly as they would have hoped either.

Everybody is searching for clues as to what Ian McGeechan is thinking but with so few games and so many things to juggle it is difficult. He seems to be giving Shane Williams every chance to come through but the 2008 IRB World Player of the Year is still struggling to find the form that took him to that accolade.

Lee Byrne, Tommy Bowe, Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips look to be pencilled in - at least - but what happens if O'Driscoll or Roberts (who looked to be in trouble at one stage against the Sharks) is injured?

The young Irishmen have not stepped up but Rick Flutey and Gordon D'Arcy have had virtually no game time. Ugo Monye would also be a big gamble if he has to play on the wing.

Gethin Jenkins and Phil Vickery are front runners for the prop positions - the four penalties against Jenkins at the scrum are nothing to worry about, the inept assistant referee Jaco Peyper just had no clue what was going on - and Lee Mears shone again in the loose but you do worry about his lack of size against the Boks.

The captain and Alun-Wyn Jones look to be certainties for the second row spots but the back row is wide open again after the injury to Stephen Ferris. Jamie Heaslip has probably done enough to claim the No. 8 starting slot, David Wallace looks favourite for No. 7 and Tom Croft is now definitely in the equation.

The one thing the Lions forwards really need is a more dynamic approach at the breakdown and the mauls. They have found it hard to clear opposing players out of the way quickly after the tackle so the resulting ball has been slow and the rolling maul - where I expected them to have a significant advantage - appears to be a bit of a lost art at the moment.

Aggressive rucking and mauling is stopping them in their tracks too often - and the real Boks will be bigger and stronger than anything they have met so far. They desperately need a really tough game but, unless the Stormers are up for it on Saturday, that is the one thing they are not going to get.

John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to

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