Hanging on a thread
Stuart Barnes says that the Springboks may be 1-0 up in the series but the Lions are not buried yet.
Last Updated: 23/06/09 10:42am
I cannot see Table Mountain from my bedroom window for the mist. Cape Town is immersed in cloud and, as I write these thoughts down on Monday morning, the same applies to the Test series. South Africa is one nil up but the burning issue of whether the Lions have it in them to level the series (against substantial odds in Pretoria) is not an easy one to resolve.
There are two clear as a sunny African afternoon schools of thought. The first is from the South African perspective. It goes like this. Before Pieter de Villiers overplayed his substitution policy the match was never in doubt and the Lions were in tatters. The home scrum decimated the visitors against the Lions' expectations.
The line out was also controlled - as the Lions feared - and the inability not to concede penalties cost them dear as it has too often on tour. Given a match under their belt the Springboks should improve considerably for the game - in which case....rugby oblivion. There is plenty to the argument.
The alternative version of rugby reality has the Lions eradicating the problems at the scrum by playing the stockier and more compact Adam Jones on the tight head (or switching Gethin Jenkins across and targeting captain John Smit with Andrew Sheridan, a less likely option especially given his fitness doubts but a worthwhile thought at the very least) and stabilising the scrum the source of so many problems in Durban.
Shoring up the scrum
This combined with a bit more bulk to help rumble the mighty rumbling of the Springboks' tight driving game enables the Lions to play on more equal footing up front and allows the back row to target Ruan Pienaar who performed with consummate skills from the armchair of his ride at fly half throughout the game.
If the Lions can sort out these issues the 26-7 score line of the first hour is a margin of supremacy nothing like as daunting as it does appear on paper. On the front foot the Lions can argue that their back line has the penetration to do even further damage to a Springbok midfield that was porous. A special mention here for two men, Jamie Roberts and Brian O' Driscoll. The latter confirmed his world class and the former established his self as one of the most exciting backs in world rugby.
Each and every time he received possession he surged across the Springbok gain line. He looked like the kid at school who matures early and terrorises opposition until they catch him up in their latter teens. He stomped through, around and over South Africans and he read and off loaded quite brilliantly. The Beast was an understandable man of the match but the claims of the Cardiff Blues centre were strong.
If he and his fellow backs receive enough chances they could square the series. It is a school of thought that cannot be dismissed and it is to the credit of the Lions that we are finally talking about a British and Irish back line with bated breath. It has been some time.
That is the rosier vision of the near future that Ian McGeechan and his Lions see, a vision that cuts gloriously through the craggy gloom of Cape Town and its brooding half hidden back drop on this Monday morning.
Of the two the South African viewpoint would appear to be touched with enough grim realism to dent the daring and dreaming of O'Driscoll and friends. There is also the Loftus factor. The Blue Bulls quintet are going home and the crowd will lift the levels of players like Pierre Spies and Fourie du Preez who were fine but far from their world class best in Durban. The atmosphere was not in the slightest intimidating in Durban.
It was dazzling and noisy but nothing compared to the roar of support that will bellow around the most passionate of South African venues. The task is as intimidating as the mountain looks in this gloom but we have been here before. The odds are on the Springboks; the balance of all factors suggests they will win but the Lions showed in that last twenty minutes especially but throughout the game behind the scrum that this is far from a forlorn match.
Before that there is the small matter of the Emerging Springboks in Newlands on Tuesday. The result itself has little bearing on the more significant events to come on the High Veldt but this game retains plenty of interest. Morale would be given a shot if they beat this exciting young South African combination. I think they will. The fact that the Emerging Springboks are all uncapped players is an immense advantage in terms of experience. The Emerging back row will cause worries in abundance but the Lions should be bitterly disappointed not to head inland with a seventh win from eight matches.
That sounds impressive enough but the opposition has not been of the finest quality. The Lions will have to make it eight from nine in Pretoria if the rugby historians are not about to damn the tour as a failure. A heavy defeat would change the entire perspective of the trip, a win, no matter how infinitely small the margin would set us up for an epic finale in Johannesburg. Neutrals and Lions live in hope.
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Stuart, I was really surprised that the Lions did not put Ruan Pienaar under more pressure. For a player who has not played that much in the last few times we certainly gave him plenty of time to settle in. He just seemed to have so much time on the ball - is that because we let him off the hook or he is just one of those players who makes it look effortless?
STUART REPLIES: Luke, Pienaar is a class act who seems to control time itself when he's in the mood but the main problem on Saturday was the complete dominance of the Springbok pack which kept the Lions back row and press defence from scrum half on its heels. Going backwards at the rate the Lions did makes it impossible to get near someone of Pienaar's undoubted ability.
Changes to be made
Stuart, The fact of the matter is that in the first 20 minutes of the match the Lions were destroyed in all facets of the game! There was a lack of aggression from some of the lads particularly Jones and Heaslip. What changes do you think need to be made to give us a fighting chance in the second Test? I think the possibility of an all Welsh front row is looking more and more likely! No disrespect to Vickery - the guy's had a huge career and been a stalwart for English Rugby - but both he and the management have to recognise the fact that that he was schooled and mentally and physically I don't believe he's got it in the tank. I think the Lions will win the second Test though. The same aggression appetite and willingness to die for the guy beside him for 80 solid minutes is key. Easy for me to say but if these guys want to create history its what's needed!!
STUART REPLIES: Brian, An all Welsh front row looks likely but expect another Welshman, Alun-Wyn Jones, to lose out to Simon Shaw in order to scrum better and handle that driving maul. Were he not captain Paul O' Connell's place would have to be questioned but it will not be. Behind the scrum Ugo Monye will miss out. It's tough because he has played well on tour but the failure to finish the chances created (and utilise a 3-2) could have cost the team the test; that is certainly Ian McGeechan's interpretation. Fitzgerald is favourite but one razzle-dazzle from Shane Williams could change all that. At full back Byrne looks to be a doubt which will mean a start for Rob Kearney, leaving the back four of the Lions - if Fitzgerald fizzes as a quartet of Grand Slam team mates which is no bad thing. Keep the fingers crossed.
Obstructing the law
Morning Stuart, I am not sure if you and Miles mentioned it in your commentary or if was Will and the boys in the studio. Who ever it was said that Brian O'Driscoll picks a great line and that not many people can pick it out - there was even a yellow squiggle to drawn on the screen. On closer inspection it looks like BOD hides behind Roberts and uses him as a blocker then peels off his shoulder and runs into the so called hole. Isn't that called obstruction?
Jon, Aussie in London
STUART REPLIES: Jon,The poor man's Jackson Pollock stuff on the screen is my artwork and so were those words. But weren't those great lines off Roberts, who, by unloading the pass at the perfect time places the great Irishman into space? Coming from the land of Mark Ella I am stunned you query the lines instead of revere them...I thought that centre pairing was magnificent, truly heroic with Roberts coming of age and O' Driscoll reminding the world how great he is and has long been.
Anyway those are my thoughts, let me know yours after Pretoria. The Lions are not marching on it but they are heading there with plenty of belief, will it be justified? Can't wait to find out,