Lions in South Africa 2009

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South Africa v British & Irish Lions, Durban, June 20
Lions and Springboks set for opening battle
Graham Jenkins in Durban
June 18, 2009

The British & Irish Lions and South Africa will go head-to-head at Kings Park in Durban on Saturday in the first match in their three-Test series.

The Springboks, widely regarded as the best team in the world today, will be heavy favourites to exact revenge for a painful series defeat 12 years ago but the Lions have reason to hope that they can emulate their illustrious predecessors.

Much has been made of the importance of the first Test and it is clear that it offers the tourists the best chance to claim an advantage in what promises to be a bruising and compelling series.

The Lions are riding a six-game winning streak coming into this weekend's clash which is the only one at sea-level. In addition, the Springboks have not ventured onto the international stage since last November - opting only for a low-key warm-up against a Namibian XV - and many of their leading players have not seen any competitive action for five weeks.

Add in the daunting prospect of having to secure back-to-back victories at altitude in the remaining Tests to win the series and you can begin to see why Saturday's opening encounter will see the Lions throw everything in their locker at their hosts.

The majority of the Lions' line-up had selected itself before head coach Ian McGeechan sat down to reveal it on Thursday with very few positions open to debate. Lock Paul O'Connell skippers the side and will lead from the front with Alun-Wyn Jones winning the battle to partner him in the second row.

The front-row features the reliable Lee Mears at hooker while the experienced Phil Vickery gets the nod at tight-head and the impressive Gethin Jenkins' work rate edges out the scrummaging power of Andrew Sheridan at loose-head.

The ball-hungry Jamie Heaslip will pack down at No.8 while Tom Croft completes a remarkable rise from tour reject to Test starter by filling the No.6 shirt and will provide a valuable option in the lineout. In one of the more hotly-contested positions the more physical approach of David Wallace is favoured over the arguably more dynamic Martyn Williams at openside.

Welsh duo Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones will renew their partnership at scrum-half and fly-half respectively while Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll will spearhead what has the makings of a devastating Lions backline, one which also includes prolific wing duo of Tommy Bowe and Ugo Monye. Completing the Lions' line-up is fullback Lee Byrne whose attacking prowess and cannon for a boot ensure his place in the side.

The Springboks appear to be playing into the Lions' hands with somewhat controversial coach Peter de Villiers admitting recently his side would use the first 20 minutes to play themselves into the game. A high-risk strategy if true but on paper South Africa pose a mighty threat from one to 15 and are arguably a more polished side than that which lifted the Rugby World Cup crown in 2007.

John Smit will lead the side at tight-head alongside Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira and while some have questioned Smit's ability to dominate at No.3 any apparent deficiency is negligible when you consider the formidable support he has in the pack.

Locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha are set to continue their long-running partnership in the second-row and will no doubt be towers of strength - Matfield the imperious presence at the lineout and Botha the brutal enforcer at the set piece and the loose.

Further concern for the Lions comes in the Springboks' back-row. Juan Smith is perhaps the best blindside flanker in the world and as athletic in the lineout as he is in the loose. Anchoring the scrum is the man-mountain that is Pierre Spies who combines brute force with superb speed and some great handling. Completing the trio is rising start Heinrich Brussow who will be making his first start but the prospect will not be too daunting for him having terrorised the Lions in Cheetahs' colours during the warm-up games.

Feeding an equally impressive backline will be the classy scrum-half Fourie du Preez. He will be partnered by Ruan Pienaar at fly-half with the No.10's match fitness one of the few possible weak links in what is otherwise a formidable line-up. Pienaar's season has been blighted by injury but he has done enough in training to earn the trust of the Springboks' management despite the outstanding form of the uncapped Morne Steyn who along with Du Preez steered the Bulls to Super 14 glory this year.

Elsewhere, the versatile Francois Steyn fills the void at fullback left by an injury to Conrad Jantjes and although not a specialist in the position will be an active threat with ball in hand and when putting boot to ball.

Poacher supreme Jean de Villiers will line up at inside centre but along with centre partner Adi Jacobs has had injury problems this season and is short of game time. The backline is rounded out by the potent threats that are wingers Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen.

The Lions' aggressive rush defence has caused all of their provincial opponents problems and such pressure is sure to test the Springboks. But they will know what is coming and will have a plan in place to counter it - it just remains to be seen if they can execute and cut the Lions open where so many others have failed.

The tourists have also looked dangerous in attack especially with quick, front-foot ball and more of the same could spell trouble for the Boks. We can also rest assured that the Lions have kept some powder dry for this game in particular and we can expect to see another dimension to their incisive endeavour.

However, the Lions' somewhat limited warm-up games have revealed some cracks in certain areas of their game, most notably the breakdown, and in that respect they face nothing but a huge step up in class this weekend. With the tackle such a key contest area the interpretations of referee Bryce Lawrence will also be significant and both sets of coaches will sit down with him - all together - in what it thought to be an unprecedented move.

South Africa made a mistake of underestimating the Lions in 1997 and were made to pay with defeat in the opening Test in Newlands and subsequently the loss of the series. I do not expect the Springboks to make the same mistake, so raw are the wounds still, but other factors could see the Lions score a narrow victory and set-up the series perfectly.

South Africa: Francois Steyn (Sharks); JP Pietersen (Sharks), Adi Jacobs (Sharks), Jean de Villiers (Stormers), Bryan Habana (Bulls); Ruan Pienaar (Sharks), Fourie du Preez (Bulls); Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks), Bismarck du Plessis (Sharks), John Smit (Sharks, captain), Bakkies Botha (Bulls), Victor Matfield (Bulls), Heinrich Brussow (Cheetahs), Juan Smith (Cheetahs), Pierre Spies (Bulls)

Replacements: Gurthro Steenkamp (Bulls), Deon Carstens (Sharks), Andries Bekker (Stormers), Danie Rossouw (Bulls), Enrico Januarie (Stormers), Jacque Fourie (Lions), Morne Steyn (Bulls)

British & Irish Lions: Lee Byrne (Ospreys & Wales); Tommy Bowe (Ospreys & Ireland), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster & Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues & Wales), Ugo Monye (Harlequins & England); Stephen Jones (Scarlets & Wales), Mike Phillips (Ospreys & Wales); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues & Wales), Lee Mears (Bath & England), Phil Vickery (London Wasps & England), Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys & Wales), Paul O'Connell (Munster & Ireland, captain), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers & England), David Wallace (Munster & Ireland), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster & Ireland)

Replacements: Matthew Rees (Scarlets & Wales), Adam Jones (Ospreys & Wales), Donncha O'Callaghan (Munster & Ireland), Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues & Wales), Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers & England), Ronan O'Gara (Munster & Ireland), Rob Kearney (Leinster & Ireland)

Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)

Assistant referess: Stuart Dickinson (Australia), Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Television Match Official: Christophe Berdos (France)

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