The phony war is over, says Stuart Barnes, so the Lions must now step up at Ellis Park on Wednesday.
Last Updated: 03/06/09 6:03pm
Sorry Lions fans but the biggest game in town last Saturday was a fair few miles from Rustenburg.
While the Lions were so rough edged as to be almost serrated in their efforts against the minnows (but manful in the extreme) of the Royal XV, the Blue Bulls were putting together the outstanding team performance of the last twelve months and that includes any test match effort.
The previous week their first forty minutes against the Crusaders was as good as anything I have seen in aeons but in the final they stopped their New Zealand opponents from sharing in the fun.
It was - and I hate this overly used Americanisation a great deal - awesome. You can argue a case that five of the world XV would play for this one South African region. The fanatics of Loftus have much to be grateful for.
What a shame the Lions are not playing them on their home ground. For all the talk of the Lions going back to their roots, the absence of a fixture against this great traditional region is a sign that this is not quite the old fashioned adventure many would have you believe.
In fact, it is equally sharply focussed on its rugby and its financial imperatives and there is nothing wrong with that but maybe a little less of the romantic stuff all the time, please.
Me, I will be delighted with a series that is in the balance come the final test in Johannesburg. After the disparities between the Lions and Bulls at the weekend that appears a pipe dream but South Africa wear green not blue and are Springboks not Bulls.
In a fight the Bull takes the Springbok every time. Having seen an elephant thirty paces from me whilst I sipped a pleasing Pinotage after the game on Saturday and no, I was not sizzled, who is to say what is waiting around the corner.
It does not look good for the Lions but looks can be deceptive as I try to explain and argue in response to a slightly despairing question.
Write last Saturday off as a phony war; the locals were not interested, the Lions were not flowing and the nation was on Bull alert. You may think it a matter of bull to claim that a Lions match was probably only the fourth most interesting match of the weekend but with the Super Fourteen and the French semi finals it takes a rugby person with a peculiar disinterest in matters other than international rugby to disagree.
It begins for real at Ellis Park on Wednesday night. Fingers crossed it is packed with 60,000 fans expecting the worst from the Lions and getting something better and unexpected.
I cannot comment on the England loss to the Barbarians because I have not had a chance to see the game but I guess it has to be seen as a setback as England places such a priority to winning each and every game.
Let every Englishman hope they grind out a victory against Argentina but that's not really the priority is it? The Golden Lions Wednesday and the Cheetahs, hopefully with Juan Smith and his Springbok colleagues on the field; it is time for the Lions to claim the spotlight (although I would love to be in Paris as well for the French final; well, who wouldn't?Have a great week, if you, like me don't have the capacity to be in two places at once and are stuck in the UK and Ireland, enjoy the rugby.
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Stuart, I am not one for 'kicking' players when they are down and while Keith Earls is a very talented player I cannot help but feel that he is not quite ready for this Lions tour. The selectors have made such a fuss about picking players on form, but what about proven criteria? Having seen Gordon D'Arcy in superb form for the Baa-baas I wonder how many people now think that it was a good idea to pick Earls ahead of D'Arcy or even Max Evans?
STUART REPLIES: Peter, No doubt Keith Earls had an anxious start to his Lions career and - on top of a poor Heineken Cup semi final performance - one could argue that Ian McGeechan was carried away by the Munster demolition job on the Ospreys. I think he was but I am not going to blame him as I certainly felt the same way as he probably did. This is something of a hindsight judgement and, remember, Earls was selected as an outside centre/stroke utility player which the now in form D'Arcy most certainly is not. In retrospect it looks a bad call but that's the nature of selections, no one gets them all right and who is to say that now the nerves are out the way he may not bounce back and show his undoubted ability. Let's not dismiss Earls too early.
Hi Stuart, hope you are enjoying our hospitality - we are loving having the Lions here. My question to you is whether the narrow win will actually play into the Lions hands. On Sunday around the braai (bbq) all the men were talking about how poor the Lions were and how they the Boks were going to win 3-0 easily. I remember 1997 very well - although that time it was my Dad and his friend standing around the braai saying how poor the Lions were and we were going to smash them 3-0. I am a Golden lions fan but part of me want them to lose as it may just wake up our fans and some of our players to realise that this tour is far from done and dusted just because the Lions were slow of the mark. Beth Viljoen, Killarney
STUART REPLIES: Beth, The Lions will be a different beast come the first test. Different combinations, different moves, different systems. It would be foolish to write them off on the balance of a rusty Rustenburg performance. If the Braai folk want to write them off because they think the Springboks can emulate the quality of the Bulls performance on Saturday, that is a more reasoned reason to dismiss them. However, South Africa are not the Bulls. They might be better (if they are the Lions cannot possibly improve enough - or find players good enough to live at that level ) but they might make selection errors, tactical errors, the sort of errors that left them series losers having scored nine tries to three against the Lions in the 1997 series. Logic suggests the Lions cannot win but logic, thank God, does not determine everything on this wonderful random planet of ours. PS I think your Lions might struggle against the British and Irish version Wednesday but good luck and hope we all enjoy the occasion.
Stuart, how much can we read into the Bulls demolition of the Chiefs in the Super 14 final? I am not a fan of the Super 14 but that was a really impressive performance from the Bulls against a very good Chiefs side. I did not think the Chiefs played that badly, but the Bulls were in a totally different league. Very scary stuff ahead - thank goodness the Lions are not playing them. Michelle, London
STUART REPLIES: Michelle, that was the stuff of nightmares. The best scrum half on the planet, the best second row combination, the most dynamic Number Eight and a fly half/kicker in the form of his life. If the South African management gets selection right it is hard to see the Lions winning but....see above. As for being relieved at not playing the Bulls, I cannot agree. Surely the best regional team in the world should have the chance of taking on the the Lions. I always loved those 'unofficial fourth tests' and this would have been a game the Lions could almost treat as a test triumph had they won in Pretoria (which I am pretty sure they would not have achieved, nor for that matter would New Zealand if Du Preez and company played at that incredible pitch of power and pace.
Thanks for the mail,