Boks looking to overall talent

2009-06-20 00:00

THE phoney war is over, the talking, the writing and the sabre-rattling is done, and after 12 years the Springboks and the British Lions will resume hostilities in the first Test at King’s Park this afternoon.

The traditional roles have been reversed with the once-conservative Springboks now selecting bravely, some will say foolishly, in seeking to attack the Lions who, in contrast, have been methodical and pragmatic in their preparation and selection.

The Bok selectors, in days of yore, would have included a specialist fullback (Stefan Terblanche), a flyhalf (Morné Steyn), who could guarantee a rich haul of points with the boot, and players with proved fitness and form. But in their determination to exploit the pace and power of their backs and loose forwards, they have opted for runners and counter-attackers, like Frans Steyn and Ruan Pienaar, even if they have not played for many weeks. They have followed the hoary old adage that form is temporary, but class — even if a touch rusty — is permanent.

The Springbok coaches have all dismissed fears that the backs will be underdone, but four of them — Steyn, Jean de Villiers, Adi Jacobs and Pienaar — are returning from injury and they will have to slip quickly into their best form against quality opposition and under intense pressure.

The spotlight, perhaps unreasonably, will centre unwaveringly on the quietly-spoken, level-headed Pienaar. The young utility back, who wants to be a scrumhalf, knows he has to perform at the highest level today, both in kicking goals and in marshalling general play. It is a big ask. He is still learning his trade as a retreaded flyhalf and his preparation has been limited to a handful of games this year because of knee and ankle ligament. And, all the while, Morné Steyn, kicking rather than running, has been securing his position in Bulls folklore up at Loftus, winning games and influencing people.

Pienaar knows that if he struggles to find his feet today, and the Boks lose, then the whole of Pretoria will be all over him — and coach Peter de Villiers — like a blue rash.

The Lions, as they were in 1997, are being written off in some quarters, but not in the Bok camp. The tourists certainly have the tools to do the job if the Boks are below their best. They are physical, they perform the basics exceptionally well, their defence is excellent, they are astutely coached by Ian McGeechan and they kick their goals. They have a potent midfield pairing in the imposing, 106-kg Jamie Roberts and classy Brian O’Driscoll and Springbok centres Jean de Villiers and Adi Jacobs will be questioned defensively.

Teams with far less to offer have won Test matches in South Africa and the Springboks will have to be sharp, focused and committed.

The secret to beating the Lions is to break their momentum at source. The tourists go into this Test on the back of an unbeaten record, although they have faced teams of diluted strength and should not read too much into that. McGeechan’s battle-hardened men have shown they will not stand back physically and they are well-drilled and accurate in taking the ball through the phases.

The set pieces should break even — if Bok captain John Smit defies his critics and stands up strongly at tighthead — and the battle will be most fierce at the breakdown where the mood and flow of this Test will be decided.

The individual contests — between Victor Matfield and Paul O’Connell at the lineout, Smit and Gethin Jenkins in the front-row, the astute Fourie du Preez and the massive, 103-kg Mike Phillips at scrumhalf, Jones and Pienaar at flyhalf and the talented midfield pairings — all add spice to what should prove a classic Test match.

In flyhalf Stephen Jones the Lions also have an accurate goalkicker, who will punish the Boks if referee Bryce Lawrence does not smile on flank Heinrich Brüssow at the breakdown or if Bismarck du Plessis and Bakkies Botha allow their discipline to slip.

The Boks, big, athletic and mobile, have the necessary attacking skills, but their approach has to be properly managed. There is a time to run and a time to kick. New fullback Frans Steyn has often confused the moments while playing for the Sharks, but if he and Pienaar get it right today and the Boks produce the balanced approach that saw them to record wins over the Wallabies (53-8) and England (42-6) late last year, the Boks will be smiling.

The British Lions, playing at sea level and against an under-prepared Bok side today, certainly have their best chance of victory.

The bottom line is that the Boks are looking to their overall talent, pace and power to overcome the streetwise, better-prepared and organised Lions. If the plan works, and the Bok forwards build up a head of steam while flyhalf Pienaar controls the ebb and flow of the contest, then South Africa will win. And that could be decisive with the Lions then having to twice beat the improving Boks on successive weekends at altitude to take the series.

This is a massive, much-anticipated contest, the biggest Test match since the 2007 World Cup final, and it will be a tough, torrid affair. If the Springboks are indeed fit and on song, they should carry the day … just.

TEAMS

Springboks — 15 Frans Steyn, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Adi Jacobs, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 John Smit (c), 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.

Replacements: 16 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 17 Deon Carstens, 18 Andries Bekker, 19 Danie Rossouw, 20 Ricky Januarie, 21 Jaque Fourie, 22 Morné Steyn.

British & Irish Lions — 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Lee Mears, 1 Gethin Jenkins.

Replacements: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Adam Jones, 18 Donncha O’Callaghan, 19 Martyn Williams, 20 Harry Ellis, 21 Ronan O’Gara, 22 Rob Kearney.

Referee: Bryce Lawrence (NZ) Kick-off: 3 pm

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