Lions ready to roar

The British and Irish Lions are ready to paint Durban red tomorrow by backing their unshakeable belief that they can stun world champions South Africa.

The British and Irish Lions are ready to paint Durban red tomorrow by backing their unshakeable belief that they can stun world champions South Africa.

England World Cup winner Phil Vickery, a member of the last Lions team to taste Test match success - eight years ago in Australia - knows the stakes could hardly be higher.

"In my opinion, there are two true Test matches - one is France, and the other is South Africa," said the Lions' tighthead prop.

"Tomorrow will be incredible, far beyond probably anything I've experienced for a while. If you switch off for 10 minutes of a Test match against these guys, it could be all over.

"It's going to be a huge step, but I firmly believe the guys we have are more than capable of stepping up and performing.

"I am probably more nervous now than I've ever been in my whole rugby career."

Wave after wave of Lions fans have arrived in Durban, lapping up temperatures of more than 70 degrees alongside the Indian Ocean.

So anxious are South African rugby chiefs to make the ABSA Stadium a level playing field off the pitch, that they issued a public appeal for Springbok fans to wear green.

"They (Lions fans) will be out in force," said South Africa Rugby acting managing director, the former Wales centre Andy Marinos.

"Every four years, stadia across the southern hemisphere are awash in red, and the Springboks are calling on all their fans to show their support."

It was a similar story in Brisbane on the 2001 Lions tour. After going out for the pre-match coin toss, skipper Martin Johnson returned to the dressing room and informed his players they were effectively playing a home game.

Victory tomorrow at the ground where Johnson's 1997 Lions secured Test series glory would represent a colossal achievement for a side containing 10 first-time Test starters.

It must surely be in their favour though that South Africa have not played a competitive match since smashing England at Twickenham last November.

Vickery added: "For me, being involved in the Lions is the biggest thing as a rugby player you can ever do.

"I'm a proud Englishman, and standing on the pitch singing the national anthem is a huge thing for me.

"But, at the same time, being part of the British and Irish Lions is the greatest honour you can have.

"If the changing room is not emotional tomorrow, then I will certainly make sure it is by the time we get out, that's for sure."

The opening Test of three is riddled with fascinating individual battles, none more so than Lions captain Paul O'Connell opposing the world's best lineout technician in Victor Matfield, scrum-half Mike Phillips tackling the Springboks' attacking catalyst Fourie du Preez or rival flankers David Wallace and Heinrich Brussow scrapping for breakdown supremacy.

Having selected a pack the Lions hope can move a heavy-duty Springboks eight to far-flung parts of the field they would rather not inhabit, the gauntlet has been thrown down.

"If we get involved in a set-piece and a real physical one-on-one confrontation game, then that's something the South Africans are very good at and will enjoy," said Lions forwards coach Warren Gatland.

"We've got to hopefully move their pack around a bit, try and play through lots of phases and ask some questions of their front five.

"For us, we can take a lot of confidence out of France's performance (and victory) against the All Blacks last week.

"Traditionally, it's normally the first Test when you have an opportunity to catch the home team a little bit underdone.

"We've got six games under our belt now, and a lot of training sessions, and we've got to go into this first Test with some confidence and some self-belief.

"We need to impose our game on them as much as possible.

"The South Africans are very proud about their rugby heritage and tradition, and they will be reminded about what happened in 1997. They definitely won't want a repeat of that."

The Springboks rightly start as favourites, but there is a feelgood factor about the 2009 Lions so chronically lacking in New Zealand four years ago when they got it spectacularly wrong.

If the Lions gain parity up front, then their back line will be bristling to make its mark, and there are attacking threats in abundance through the presence of players like Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Roberts and Tommy Bowe.

It might, just might, prove one heck of a lot closer than many Springbok supporters are predicting.

"I've been incredibly privileged to be a part of this tour," added Gatland.

"Paul O'Connell summed it up on day one. He's a proud Munsterman and a proud Irishman, but the pinnacle of his career is putting that Lions jersey on.

"As you count down towards the end of the tour, you've got to keep reminding yourself what a privilege it is and how lucky you are to be here.

"Let's not waste that opportunity and let the moment pass us by. We've got a chance to create something pretty special."

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