British & Irish Lions
Wallace backs Lions to beat the Boks
Graham Jenkins
March 6, 2009
British & Irish Lions prop Paul Wallace powers through a tackle, South Africa v British & Irish Lions, Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, July 5, 1997
Wallace takes the attack to South Africa during the third Test at Ellis Park in 1997 © Getty Images

Former British & Irish Lions international Paul Wallace has backed the elite tourists to claim a famous series victory over South Africa later this year.

Wallace, an ever-present in the side that secured a famous 2-1 series triumph over the Springboks in 1997, believes the Lions will overcome the odds to beat the current the world champions.

"They have to be huge underdogs going down there just like we were, but I'm going to go 2-1 for the Lions," said Wallace, who along with siblings Richard (1993) and David (2001), is one of three brothers to have represented the Lions. "It will probably go the whole three Tests but if they can bond well and with Ian McGeechan at the helm they are more than capable of beating the Springboks."

Wallace missed out on selection for the original touring party in 1997 but was drafted in as a replacement following an injury to compatriot Peter Clohessy. The then 25-year-old subsequently made the most of his opportunity by making the No.3 shirt his own in the face of stiff competition from the likes of England's Jason Leonard and Wales's Dai Young.

He started all three Tests at tight-head including the series-clinching 18-15 victory over their hosts at Kings Park and unsurprisingly his fondest memory stems from that clash.

"Jerry Guscott landing that drop goal!" he exclaimed as if it had just happened - referring to the England centre's sweetly struck kick that set the seal on their historic triumph.

Wallace, who was capped 45 times by Ireland between 1995 and 2002, also remembers the special atmosphere generated by tens of thousands of fans who descended on South Africa for the tour which was the first in the professional era and also the Lions' first visit to the country since the end of apartheid.

"The celebration afterwards in Kings Park was special, with the crowd having their braai's [barbeque] and just going from people to people chatting. It had been fairly quiet for the games before the Test series, but when all the Lions supporters arrived en masse it was an incredible feeling. To have won the series in two Tests was exceptional; no-one expected us to do it that way."

The former Blackrock, Saracens and Leinster prop pinpointed the camaraderie within the squad, famously depicted on the Living with the Lions documentary that followed their progress, as key to their success on the field and urged tour management to embrace a similar approach to selection this time around.

"The '97 tour was special because of the way the players bonded," he recalled. "I think a lot of that came down to everyone getting an equal opportunity of getting a Test spot and not having a pre-ordained Test side and mid-week side when we went on tour. So I think it is very important for this tour that everyone gets a shot the same way.

"Physically, if they get on the front foot and get in behind you, especially on the high veldt, they will run riot as they are very powerful players."

"Some guys on tour really come out of themselves and play much better than they do at home and some players who had been playing well domestically go into their shells and generally don't play as well, especially those who don't enjoy touring. You've really got to pick on form during a tour."

As part of a side that has been there and done it, Wallace is also well-placed to offer advice on how to beat the world champions, as South Africa were in 1997, on home soil.

"You really have to front up," he stressed. "Physically, if they get on the front foot and get in behind you, especially on the high veldt, they will run riot as they are very powerful players. It will also need huge defence, claustrophobic defence, getting right up in their faces, stopping then behind the gainliness. The maul is not as much of a weapon under the new ELVs so you will have to use it efficiently. I think the lineout is a key area too - they have the best second row pairing in the world [Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha]. I think if you can get parity there then you are halfway to beating the Springboks.

"The kicking game is also going to be crucial up in the high veldt with the flow of the ball, and the Lions must get used to that as soon as possible. I think the two fullback options of [Rob] Kearney and [Lee] Byrne have such big boots and I think that could be a major advantage in addition to their running abilities."

As in 1997, McGeechan will once again be the man at the helm of the Lions and Wallace believes that they could not be in better hands as they look to erase the memories of a bruising tour of New Zealand four years ago. The Lions lost the Test series 3-0, the first time in 22 years they had suffered a whitewash. The trip was mired in controversy both on and off the pitch as coach Clive Woodward's selection policy and his management-heavy tour party moved away from the traditions of the Lions before the tour-ending spear tackle on skipper Brian O'Driscoll moments into the first Test.

"He is such an intelligent rugby man, a rugby philosopher," said Wallace of McGeechan, "and with Shaun Edwards you've got a real drill sergeant as well, quite like Jim Telfer [assistant coach in 1997]. I think they are going to be a very strong combination and Ian will make sure that everyone gets a shot at it.

"He knows how to beat South Africa down there and will have studied every detail meticulously. I really think if you were going to pick anyone for the job it would have to be him."

Paul Wallace was speaking at an HSBC Lions Legends dinner in Dublin. HSBC is the principal partner of the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.


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