The 1997 British Lions vs. South Africa Match
(Preview and Postview)
With just a few days until the first test between South Africa and the British Lions at Cape Town, it is time to maybe take a breather from the hurly burly and assess the chances of the Lions in the upcoming tests - the first series between these two sides for seventeen years.
The Lions have had on paper a successful start to their tour to date, with seven wins out of eight. The side has played some dazzling rugby at times, and notably the South African press has been full of praise for the way the Lions have embraced the more fluid and open style of southern hemisphere rugby. The squad generally have all acquitted themselves extremely well, leaving the selectors in the enviable position of having the majority of positions open to a choice of in form players, and the recent superlative win against Natal, Currie Cup champions and top four finishers in the Super Twelve for the last two years would auger well for the side.
The successful impact of the so-called "Rugby League" players on tour has been of interest - every one of them to a man could be likely to play a part in the test series, and Quinnell was obviously being groomed as the test number eight before his untimely injury. Their abilities have been outstanding on tour, and their commitment to the regime of training and being part of a squad unwavering. No doubt their experiences of being professional rugby players for far longer will be a large factor here, and obviously they must have been good players to have been asked to play league, but other qualities are surfacing. The defensive qualities of all four rugby league boys left are second to none, whilst their strength in attack has been displayed in their ability to either stay on their feet in contact, or go forward in the tackle. Bentley's try against Gauteng was an object lesson in beating defenders and finishing despite not being the quickest of wingers, almost repeated a week later against the Emerging Springboks when his storming run set up Nick Beal. Whilst not overplaying the role of rugby league - after all, all these men played rugby union for a long time before becoming professional rugby league players - their experiences in league have undoubtably helped them become better players, and these are benefits that the Lions are now reaping.
However, reality over the past few weeks is hidden by the gloss of the preceding remarks. Even leaving aside the untypical conditions endured at East London, the squad has rarely fired on all cylinders, and more importantly, the pack has looked extremely shaky at set piece, and uncompetitive in the loose at times. This problem reached a peak in the poor performance whilst losing against Northern Transvaal - the first ever Lions loss to a South African province for almost thirty years - and was doubly worrisome because if anything it was the perceived test pack, comprising mainly the much vaunted English pack, that came under the cosh. To add to the Lions problems leading up to the first test have been the loss to the tour of Paul Grayson with injury, Doddie Weir, cynically fouled by Marius Bosman against Mpumalanga, Scott Quinnell with groin strain, and Rob Howley with a dislocated shoulder. All four losses will have upset potential planning - Grayson's loss severely reduced the options at fly-half at a time when the tour was beginning to build momentum, Weir was playing so well as to push for a test spot, while Quinnell was being groomed for the test team number eight. Rob Howley's loss will be the one that affects the team the most however... the loss of the British Isles' top scrumhalf by a long chalk will be a body blow.
However, all that is now behind them... the scrummaging problems seem to have been overcome, and Howley aside, the tour replacements have slotted in well. So who will play?
Certainly there are many players in contention - possibly no previous Lions' tour has had such a genuine competition for test places. Possibly only three men could feel confident of playing all three tests, and Martin Johnson as captain aside none of the remaining two could be viewed as 100% definite given the strength of the competition - even Neil Jenkins as brilliant a kicker as he is cannot be assured of three test jerseys while Jeremy Guscott has so much competition from the other centres, not one of whom has put a foot wrong, that even his silken skills are assured a hat-trick of starts.
It may be easier to review those players that are unlikely to be selected, harsh though that may seem. Rowntree has failed to shine on tour, especially in comparison with Tom Smith who has taken his opportunities with both hands; Regan has been completely overshadowed by his Celtic counterparts Wood and Williams; Ollie Redman whilst by no means being a passenger and still giving his absolute all is probably the most surprised (and delighted!) member of the squad to be there, and Tim Rodber has not looked at all up to his usual standard - his injuries and stomach complaint seem to have taken their toll. Tony Underwood has not done anything wrong on tour at all, but doesn't seem to be in the selectors' eye, and certainly lacks any physical penetration. These players - none of them poor players at all - aside, even the potential also-rans are outside contenders; Healey who has shown to be lacking in experience for this level is still in the frame even if principally due to Howley's injury, whilst Bracken, if not for the first test, still has the possibility of forcing the selectors to consider him ahead of Dawson if he performs well in a midweek performance.
Everybody else has done more than enough to indicate that they could stake a claim to a Lions spot over the past four weeks - even the much maligned Mike Catt displayed against the Emerging Springboks that relieved of goal kicking duties, he can release a back line, and on his day can be as destructive a runner as Townsend, while Stimpson showed against the Emerging Springboks that not much is wrong with his game once he learns to counter-attack! Certainly his boots on the two occassions he has kicked the goals have not been lacking in accuracy.
Certainly the selectors have an unenviable duty to perform when sitting to select the first test; given their performances on tour, especially as the tour has developed, who can truly select between Back & Hill? Wood & Williams? Davidson & Shaw? Any of the centres on tour?
Even Tony Diprose, with only one appearance to date after joining the tour so late, has put in a performance so strong as to be surely discussed as a genuine contender for the number eight berth.
Some players will be in stronger positions certainly when it comes to selection for the first test, but such is the strength and form of this Lions squad that many permutations are available. The final choices are as likely to be made on balance than anything else so maybe Gibbs has a better chance of selection over Bateman, if it is believed that Guscott with his incredible pace and defense splitting ability has to play. Or if not balance, experience - Evans over Nick Beal simply because of his phenomenal finishing ability based on years of experience. Leonard over Wallace purely because all those test caps may possibly give him the edge in a tight situation; certainly after Leonard's performance against Emerging Springboks there is nothing to choose between the two.
One thing is almost certain however - it is unlikely the Lions will go through the three tests using only fifteen players! If nothing else, the bench will be as difficult to select as the starting fifteens; certain players are hallmarked as bench replacements because of their multi-positional abilities and experience, such as Catt and Healey. Jason Leonard should be assured of his position in a test squad because of his ability to play either side but should he start, this skill also permits the selectors to pick a bench prop for purely tactical reasons.
Whoever doesn't get selected for the initial test squad should certainly not feel downheartened either, as an injury here, a loss of form there, and they could well be straight back into contention, although it will still be a long shot with only two midweek games available to stake those claims. Bracken for one will be very keen to get a Tuesday game, as otherwise it's been a long way to come as a spectator!
Which leaves trying to predict a series result.... South Africa have just beaten Tonga by a large margin in uncompromising fashion, and their top players have just completed Super Twelve. They will be a very large, very powerful, and highly tuned team, worthy of their current mantle of World Champions. That said, Tonga was always going to be an easy victory for the world champions and won't have stretched them in anyway, and after the distressing Markgraaf episode, they have a new coach who has yet to prove his selections and ideas will work. The South African provinces didn't really perform that well in the Super Twelve, with only Natal making the final four, and the Lions have had no problems seeing them off along with Gauteng, fifth in the Super Twelve. Even in losing to Northern Transvaal it was evident that a pack that had won any decent ball would have ensured a comfortable victory, and the Lions pack is looking back to top form. The Lions have also the benefit of being together for over a month come the first test, while South Africa will have had about two weeks, and in which time they will only have played one actual match, and have really gelled in the last week. The bookies still stack the odds heavily in the Springboks favour, but I feel (and hope!) the reality will be closer.
However, although my heart says Lions to win, home advantage if absolutely nothing else should shade it for the home team. Two to One to South Africa come July 5th... but I for one will be hoping that I am totally wrong.
Roll on Saturday! Roll on the series!
Bring on the Springboks!
Well, well, well. Who'd have thought it? Maybe 35 players, and a handful of management; maybe a few crazed loons as they howled at the moon... but the majority of the Lions supporting fraternity, and probably every single man jack in the rest of the universe never gave them a chance. Perhaps many of them would never have had the Lions down for a single test win; a hardened few would have had the Lions down for a total debacle and tour whitewash. Six weeks, many pints of Wadsworth's 6X, and a bruised liver & wallet later it's all over, done, and dusted. The 1997 British and Irish Lions have written themselves into the record books as series victors, to place themselves alongside such immortal teams as the 1971 & 1974 squads.
The game will never be the same again - will it?
For years the northern hemisphere nations have suffered criticism in comparison with the southern hemisphere nations; their game was stodgy and lacked flair; it was dominated by individuals that had perfected negative tactics; its players lacked skills and heart. In truth, the hemispherical descriptions have belied the real messages - for northern hemisphere read "England, Ireland, Scotland & Wales" and for southern hemisphere read "New Zealand and South Africa." As such a Lions tour has encapsulated that hemispherical concept perfectly; the best the useless northern hemisphere has pitted against one of the cream of southern hemisphere nations. Only twice in modern times has the accepted world order been questioned but now in 1997 a third "upset" can be added.
In achieving this unheralded win, the Lions have shown that northern hemisphere players can encompass the more open and expansive game demanded by newer laws and expectations, and also compete mentally with a ferocious spirit and confidence rarely credited to their ilk. Southern hemisphere players have been shown to be human after all; indecisive, ill-disciplined and naive. So, what of the future? Will this New World Order sweep all before it and overturn the status quo? Shall it be northern hemisphere supporters that in years to come bray and crow over their southern rivals, taunting them with cries of "rubbish", "boring" and "useless?"
Unfortunately for the northern hemisphere, probably not... or at least, not yet. For despite the magnificent achievements, the gains made, and the fundamental improvements, the Lions successes will take some time still to filter down through all four home nations. The fact remains that these were the cream of British and Irish rugby, and so plenty exist below them in the national teams that must still learn these lessons and expand their own games.
Secondly the management on the Lions tour is not those individual nations' management although Scotland is better served in this respect. And thirdly, some nations' entire playing strengths and philosophy have been shown during the tour to be flawed.
England excels in the Five Nations with its immense pack... but their tight five players in the Lions squad, originally touted as the Lions likely tight five, were eventually represented only by Johnson, who had he not been captain may well have lost his spot to another - Weir was looking much the better choice until injured. These English monoliths were shown not to have the mobility of South Africans, nor the ball-handling skills required to take on the expanded tasks required of them as loose play runners and distributors. The traditional Irish passion and boots-and-all approach soon became sidelined as the Lions strove - and found - a very disciplined approach that requires cool heads and objectivity in its execution. Aside from this the Welsh contingent as a whole played little part although this was maybe more circumstances - Quinell and Evans via injury, Williams and Bateman through selectorial preference. The bigger worry for Wales will be that they provided only three forwards to the entire squad, of which only Quinell at the end of the day ever looked like being selected for a test team, albeit Williams was unlucky not to play in the third test. Scotland provided some excellent individuals, but frankly had no one player that really shone on tour - unless you count Wainwright's penalty count.
But I should not be too negative; the home nations still individually have a long way to go to seriously contend with the likes of South Africa and New Zealand, but the signs are there that northern hemisphere players can - and want to - adjust to new demands; hopefully the lessons learnt/displayed by the Lions management can be picked up by the nations' own administrations... and possibly we northern hemisphere supporters have had enough taste of glorious success over southern hemisphere opponents to demand that our nations compete equally as well.
One of the heartening successes of the Lions tour was undoubtably the acceptance and influence of the Rugby League players - their own integration and input to the team especially we hear in terms of organising defences and communication can surely only be a plus point in the development of the British and Irish game; perhaps this is an indication that after a century of stand-off it is time that rugby union clubs and unions seek a closer tie with their League counterparts if only to share common knowledge and techniques, hopefully to benefit both codes. The introduction last year of league players to club rugby may hopefully be the start of a symbiosis - a coaching and management trade could well be the catalyst that British and Irish rugby requires to take it into the 21st century.
Meanwhile, back here in Devizes, things are much the same as ever... except that Wadsworth's brewery is about to declare record quarterly profits, the landlord of my local is taking a holiday to the Bahamas on his new yacht... and I'm booked into the Betty Ford clinic.
Here's to the future of British & Irish rugby.
And here's to the 1997 British & Irish Lions.
Wadsworth's shareholders love you all...