Lions in South Africa 2009

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Graham Jenkins

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Graham Jenkins is a former senior editor of ESPNscrum

South Africa v British & Irish Lions, Durban, June 20
Key battles set to decide Durban showdown
Graham Jenkins in Durban
June 18, 2009

The eyes of the rugby world will focus on Durban this weekend as the British & Irish Lions and South Africa kick off their three-Test series at Kings Park.

These two old foes will play out a three-act drama over the coming weeks with a place in the history books beckoning the brave and a lifetime of regret awaiting the losers. Both sides can boast an impressive array of international talent and as a result we are assured of some mouth-watering personal battles along the way.

Ahead of their first clash we look at the areas of the game that will likely shape the result.

In Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, South Africa can lay claim to the best second-row pairing in the world. Matfield, the most-capped Springboks lock with 80 Test appearances, is a superb lineout jumper while Botha, who has 55 caps to his name, is a renowned physical presence who brings a brutal element to the set-piece and the loose.

Standing in their way will be Lions captain Paul O'Connell. The Munster stalwart has done much of the tourists' grunt work and although he has had his critics he is sure to raise his game again for the Test series. The Lions have opted for the athletic Welshman Alun-Wyn Jones as O'Connell's second-row partner and both will need to produce the games of their lives to destabilise the hosts.

And to add a little extra spice to the confrontation, Lions great Willie John McBride recently made the bold prediction that Matfield would be "bossed" by his opposite number O'Connell. Wait for the Bakkies backlash.

In talisman Brian O'Driscoll and rising star Jamie Roberts the Lions have hit upon a potentially series-winning centre combination. Tour veteran O'Driscoll has produced some of the best rugby of his career in recent months and has carried that form on through the tour games - and in doing so has fed off the strong-running Roberts who has seemingly broken the gain line at will.

Springboks duo Jean de Villiers and Adi Jacobs also pose a significant attacking threat but both are short of game time having been troubled by injuries this season. They will have their hands full trying to contain the Lions duo and will find themselves under immense pressure from the tourists' rush defence. But if anyone is adept enough at picking off passes and returning them for tries it is the light-fingered de Villiers.

The breakdown is a key element to any game but it will be even more so now we are into the Test series, with quick ball key to both sides' attacking intentions. The contest between the two sets of back-row forwards in particular could go a long way to deciding the opening match and subsequently the series.

In No.8 Pierre Spies, South Africa have a physical giant blessed with outstanding speed while the ever-reliable blindside Juan Smith is also one of the world's best, if not the best, players in his position. Injury has stripped the Springboks of Schalk Burger but he has been replaced by arguably the form openside in world rugby - Heinrich Brussow. The rising star proved a thorn in the Lions' side when he lined up against them for the Cheetahs earlier this month and has been handed the chance to do the same in Springbok colours.

Lions No.8 Jamie Heaslip has long since laid claim to a Test jersey with a series of dynamic displays. The Leinster man is oozing confidence and riding a wave of success with his province, country and now Lions. His hunger for the ball and work rate should keep the Boks busy while his countryman David Wallace will look to keep the Springboks honest by chipping away at their defence. In blindside Tom Croft the Lions have a versatile weapon who will need no encouragement to gallop into the heart of the Springboks' defence.

Another key component of this battle will be referee Bryce Lawrence as his interpretation of the laws will no doubt come into play.

Peter de Villiers' faith in Ruan Pienaar is commendable but question marks remain about his match fitness, the Sharks pivot having endured an injury-plagued season. He comes into this clash desperately short of game time but with the complete confidence of his coach and also the goal-kicking responsibility. De Villiers has overlooked the outstanding form of the uncapped Morne Steyn, who steered the Bulls to Super 14 glory this season, with the Pretoria man starting on the bench.

Wales' Stephen Jones will fill the famous Lions No.10 jersey having edged out Ireland's Ronan O'Gara. Both have been in superb form with the boot but it is Jones' attacking capability with ball in hand and his defensice strenght that sets him apart. He also has a long-standing relationship with first-choice scrum-half and countryman Mike Phillips. Goal kicking decided the destiny of the 1997 series and the Lions look well-placed in that area once again.

A case of the unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Probably not in the first Test as the Springboks shake off the rust and the Lions settle into their first-choice pack but it will still make for compelling viewing.

The Lions have dominated this aspect of the game throughout their warm-up clashes but have been far from the finished article and have suffered at the hands of the officials. The Springboks' settled pack represents a significant step up in class and on paper they look to pack more punch than the Lions who have opted for a more mobile presence - a ploy that worked so well for them in 1997.

Some have questioned the ability of Springboks captain John Smit to excel in his recently-converted tight-head position but any perceived weakness will be negligible with such a highly-experienced and powerful pack around him. A bruising battle of the like we have yet to see on this tour is guaranteed. Expect some casualties and the injection of fresh grunt in the second-half.

The stage is set for a fascinating series. The Springboks may look to have the edge in many key areas and positions but the Lions have made great strides as a team in a short space of time and have it within them to cause the hosts more than a few problems.

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