Pride only prize on offer for Lions

ONE last stand. After ten months of high octane rugby encompassing Magners League, Guinness Premiership, Heineken Cup, Challenge Cup, Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations those who have survived to this point with willing hearts and minds must summon their reserves of pride and energy for one last effort.

With the hero of the tour Brian O’Driscoll, and tight head prop sensation Adam Jones back home after their midweek departure, those left with the responsibility of representing the Lions today must do so inspired with the task of carrying the mantle of a proud squad who have given their all since arriving seven weeks ago.

While the reward for a win will be far less significant than they would have hoped for when they left London on May 24, they will know that no Lions party has returned home from these shores whitewashed in a series against the Springboks.

The closest to that came when their forerunners of 1924, 1962 and 1968 avoided that unwanted tag by securing a draw over the course of their four test series.

It has been a spiteful week in the build up to the last game of the tour with a significant fall out after the controversial scenes in Pretoria last Saturday.

The biggest loser, apart from Schalk Burger, has been South African coach Peter de Villiers. His ridiculous comments in the wake of the eye gouging of Luke Fitzgerald are only the latest of a series of ill judged comments that have undermined his credentials and qualities as an international coach.

It has only added to the suspicions that he is a mere figurehead in the role and that the real leadership comes from the senior players and assistant coaches Dick Muir and Garry Gold.

He also appears to suffer from a selective memory given that he claims Ian McGeechan never congratulated him on their test series victory despite the fact he did so in the company of Lions media manager Greg Thomas. With so much claim and counter claim, citings and appeals during the week, today’s contest is sure to retain an edge.

The selection of both teams for the third test is not without controversy either. The healthy Irish contingent has been whittled down with as many Wasps players in the side now as from the Grand Slam champions. Quite what David Wallace and Luke Fitzgerald did to be omitted is unclear and the selection of Shane Williams is hardly based on form. The inclusion of Joe Worsley also seems a strange call with the two-try hero of the first test Tom Croft also relegated to the bench. With seven changes from the side that ran the world champions to the final whistle in Pretoria one wonders if this would have been the selection if the series were up for grabs. If it was, then the Lions would be in trouble.

The decision of the South African management to make ten changes to their side, with only two enforced due to the suspensions of Burger and Bakkies Botha, has also met with a mixed response here. Some see it as a slight on the touring party with so many first choice players rested and should the Lions lose today, it could do further damage to the entire concept.

Injuries have been the greatest curse of the modern Lions tours with so many players breaking down after the demands of a long season. One could also argue that with the resources of four international countries at your disposal you should be better positioned to cope with such problems.

The issue for the tourists today is that the foundation stones for their competitiveness in the opening two tests are missing. Welsh props Gethin Jenkins and Jones propelled the Lions forward once the demands of the Beast had been nullified. Behind them O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts offered a distinct advantage in midfield which not only rescued the Lions from the brink of a thrashing in Durban but also provided a significant advantage in Pretoria. Their combined loss is a massive blow.

There is much pressure on the experienced shoulders of Phil Vickery, recalled to the side in the absence of Jones, as he attempts to redeem himself from that nightmare opening half at the ABSA stadium. No doubt the Springboks will once again target him in the scrum.

The irony with all the changes made by South Africa is that their revamped midfield combination of Jaque Fourie and Wynand Olivier offer a more potent physical and attacking mix than the deposed Adi Jacobs and Juan De Villiers. Opposite them the make shift nature of Riki Flutey and Tommy Bowe, who had never played an international match in midfield looks a risk of major proportions.

In the circumstances Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls all have reason to feel disappointed. The introduction of the hero of Loftus, Morne Steyn at outhalf over Ruan Pienaar means that the Boks also have a points scoring machine on the field. It will be interesting to see how he copes with a first start at this level.

In a game of this nature much will depend on the state of mind of the Lions players with thoughts of home and a well earned rest within touching distance.

Ellis Park is a difficult place to play at the best of times and if Paul O’Connell’s side display any mental weakness in the face of a number of quality South African players seeking to grasp their opportunity with the Tri Nations on the horizon, then they could be in trouble.

The last week, with the acrimonious fall out between the respective squads, would indicate that the physicality which underlined the opening two tests could well be the deciding factor. The reshaped Springbok back row of Heinrich Brussow, Juan Smith and Ryan Kankowski appears to have a better balance than the previous makeup. In this respect the promoted Martyn Williams and Worsley will have their hands full. This tour started with concerns for the Lions ability to win the battle at the breakdown. With 80 minutes of rugby remaining it looks like proving decisive once again.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

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