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
'Everest' beckons Lions' class of 2009
Graham Jenkins in Durban
June 19, 2009

"This is your f***ing Everest, boys. Very few ever get a chance in rugby terms to get to the top of Everest. You have the chance today."

Jim Telfer's speech to the Lions' forwards on the eve of the first Test in 1997 has long been a required text for British & Irish rugby players with aspirations to pull on the famous red jersey. And no doubt every member of the current crop of Lions can recite some, if not all, of the Scot's impassioned words thanks to the extremely successful Living with Lions tour documentary.

Head coach Ian McGeechan stood before his latest squad on Wednesday to read the names of those who would face the Springboks at Kings Park on Saturday. We are told that in an emotionally-charged room the reaction was what he would have wanted - joy from those selected and a quick congratulatory handshake from those who failed to make the team. Judge the reactions for yourself when the latest fly-on-the-wall film is released.

Make no mistake - it will take a united squad to topple the Springboks and McGeechan and co have worked hard to forge that spirit since the squad came together. Twenty-two players may go into battle on Saturday but this squad stands as one - on and off the field.

"Being picked is the easy bit. To win for the Lions in a Test match is the ultimate, but you'll not do it unless you put your bodies on the line. Every one jack of you for 80 minutes. Defeat doesn't worry me. I've had it often and so have you. It's performance that matters. If you put in the performance, you'll get what you deserve. No luck attached to it. If you don't put it in, then we're second-raters."

So the stage is set. This is the class of 2009's opportunity to leave an indelible mark in the history books. The Lions have a long and colourful history from which to draw inspiration but this Ipod generation need only look to their own DVD collections.

There they will find Jason Robinson leaving Australia's Chris Latham for dead in Brisbane, Brian O'Driscoll bursting through the Wallabies' defence in the same clash at The Gabba and Jeremy Guscott drop kicking the Lions to glory over South Africa in Durban in 1997 - all these magic moments will still be fresh in the minds of these players. They know where they were when these pivotal moments took place. Some watched from the comfort of their sofas while others, like O'Driscoll and fellow veteran Phil Vickery had a much closer view of the action.

For some, this moment has been a long-held dream while others find themselves on the brink of greatness with their careers just beginning to blossom. Lock Simon Shaw has been here before and tasted success as part of the victorious '97 Lions. Others have been here and lost, like O'Driscoll, and still have the physical and emotional scars to prove it. For them this is a last chance.

For others like wingers Tommy Bowe and Ugo Monye and centre Jamie Roberts time is on their side. They could find themselves here again but there are no guarantees in the professional era. They must treat this the same way as their esteemed team mates.

"They don't respect you. They don't rate you. The only way to be rated is to stick one on them, to get right up in their faces and turn them back, knock them back. Outdo what they do. Outjump them, outscrum them, outruck them, outdrive them, outtackle them, until they're f***ing sick of you. Remember the pledges you made. Remember how you depend on each other at every phase, teams within teams, scrums, lineouts, ruck ball, tackles."

For some the journey to this point has already been an emotional rollercoaster such as England flanker Tom Croft. Just a few short weeks ago he was coming to terms with being a Lions outcast having been tipped widely to form part of the tourists' armoury. But injuries opened the door for his selection and having proven his worth in the warm-up matches he will line-up against the Springboks in Durban very much on the front line.

For other members of this squad the journey has been a little longer in geographical terms. Nathan Hines found his way here via Australian rugby league while New Zealander Riki Flutey can lay claim to having played both for and against the Lions. Both have long since fallen under the Lions' spell.

Each and every squad member has also made sacrifices in order to reach this point. For the majority it has been a rigorous training and playing regime since their formative years, constantly pushing the body to the limit throughout a season that is too long. For others the cost has been a bit more acute. For Hines that meant giving up the chance of sharing in domestic glory with his club Perpignan (they claimed the Top 14 crown in his absence) while for Flutey that meant painful two-hourly treatments, through the night, to ease his knee injury and keep his Lions dream alive.

"They are better than you've played against so far. They are better individually or they wouldn't be there. So it's an awesome task you have and it will only be done if everybody commits themselves now. You are privileged. You are the chosen few. Many are considered but few are chosen. They don't think f*** all of us. Nothing. We're here just to make up the f***ing numbers. Nobody's going to do it for you. You have to find your own solace -- your own drive, your ambition, your own inner strength, because the moment's arrived for the greatest game of your f***ing life."

In front of them, as in 1997, stand not only the world champions but the best side on the planet. And the physical and technical challenge they represent will be a significant step up from what the Lions have seen already on this tour.

The tackles, rucks and scrum will require a new level of commitment and every lineout and backline move will require the forethought of a grandmaster - all this while your lungs are burning like never before. Composure has been strong point for the Lions but Test match intensity can do strange things to the best players.

The smiles and laughter that have emanated from the players over the last few weeks will soon give way to match-day focus. They remain well aware that their success will ultimately be defined by the result of the Test series.

And so it comes to this. Six Welshmen, five Irishmen and four Englishmen will lead the Lions into the fiercest battle the elite tourists have ever seen. But they go with the unstinting support of their team mates, tens of thousands of fans and the massed ranks of four proud rugby nations.

Let battle commence.

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