EXCLUSIVE: Ex-British & Irish Lions prop Paul Wallace chats to Sport24

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Paul Wallace in action for the British & Irish Lions against the Springboks in 1997. (Photo by Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Paul Wallace in action for the British & Irish Lions against the Springboks in 1997. (Photo by Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images)
  • Former British & Irish Lions tighthead Paul Wallace, who featured in all three Test matches in 1997, addresses the ongoing series and why officiating at scrum time is a "guessing game".
  • The ex-Ireland international, who was coached by Warren Gatland, assesses how the New Zealander can follow Sir Ian McGeechan's lead by winning a series on South African shores.
  • The man who came up against Os du Randt 24 years ago, talks swapping jerseys with the legendary prop and how the Bok front row could gain the upper hand against Tadhg Furlong.

Sport24 asked: How would you appraise the ongoing Lions series?

Paul Wallace: From a player perspective it certainly wouldn’t be as enjoyable a tour as I experienced with the British & Irish Lions in 1997. South Africa is experiencing a surging third wave of Covid-19 infections and looting and rioting has swept parts of the country. The Lions are now settled in Cape Town and while they won’t be able to really experience the country, a Lions tour to South Africa remains the highlight for players from the four home nations. With the political issues coupled with Covid and living in a biobubble, it’s very tough and whichever squad is best able to negotiate their way through that is probably going to come out on top during the Test series. That said, I fully agree with Willie John McBride who remarked that the tour should have been postponed. I think World Rugby should have taken the lead with what has happened with Covid and pushed everything back a year. The bottom line is that corporates and sponsors would have benefited greatly from a bit more surety by pushing the big events back a year and ensuring crowd capacity. However, from a business point of view, I understand the respective unions are experiencing huge cash flow issues at present and needed the tour to go ahead. It’s not like they’re private companies trying to make a quick buck.

Sport24 asked: How do you rate the Lions’ chances against the Boks?

Paul Wallace: Warren Gatland has selected a big, physical side. They are probably not as burly as the Springboks in the second row but throughout the rest of the team they can match the South Africans. Gregor Townsend’s influence will also be key. Gregor learned from Ian McGeechan’s game plan which came from 1974. We made use of an offloading, high-tempo game in 1997 and throughout the tour we were able to get that pace in. Fast forward to 2021 and you can see that the Lions are playing a real high-tempo game. If the Lions get that going in the Test series they are going to be very hard to beat. But against South Africa and the physicality they bring, the challenge is being able to get that pace into their game. South Africa are probably going to look to their World Cup formula and rely on their physicality, make use of box kicking and dominate the line-out. For the benefit of the series, I’d love to see both teams playing that more high-tempo, offloading game... 12 years on, Morne Steyn is back in the Springbok fold and we all know what he can do with the boot.  If he starts ahead of Handre Pollard, the Lions might target him on a defensive front. I don’t think there will be as much fear of his boot because the way the game has evolved there will be a lot of tries. I think Pollard’s running game would be more of an issue for the Lions and he will get the nod.   

Sport24 asked: How does Gatland replicate the legendary Ian McGeechan?

Paul Wallace: Geech is hard to beat. Jim Telfer got most of the praise for his pre-match speeches but Geech was right up there as well. As a pair they were second to none. Geech was softly-spoken and a friend of the players, while Jim was the drill sergeant who got you to give that extra 2-3% you didn’t know you had. I really enjoyed working with them as a combination. Along with our team manager, they made the tour enjoyable. Five weeks into it players begin to get stale and homesick but in 1997 I don’t think anyone wanted to go home. In terms of the current Lions, for a start the hotel they are staying at in Cape Town looks a lot classier than the ones we called home. During their leisure time, management will put activities in place to make their off-field time as enjoyable as possible. Gatty coached me when I played for Ireland from 1998 to 2002 and he also understands the touring philosophy that players have to enjoy themselves off the field. However, I’m much happier that I had my tour 24 years ago rather than now with regards to enjoying it holistically. Sadly the current British & Irish Lions won’t get to see South Africa fully as a country and all it has to offer.

Sport24 asked: What was it like coming up against Os du Randt in 1997?

Paul Wallace: Initially I wasn’t selected for the Lions tour to South Africa and was very disappointed. When I was called up as an injury replacement, I guess I had an extra point to prove much like Kyle Sinckler. I came up against Os in the first Test of the series and he was a man monster. In the first two scrums of the series we got it all wrong. We tried to power scrummage but went in far too square. One look from Johnno (Martin Johnson) behind me and that was enough to get me to cop myself on and do what we did well. Many in the media were writing it off as illegal scrummaging but it was more a case of bringing the scrum height down and negating the pushing position of the loosehead prop. That was the way to deal with Os, and our scrum did quite well for the rest of the series. I swapped jerseys with Os after the second and third Tests. The second time I went to him he asked me, “Why do you want a second jersey?” His jerseys were so big I could have roofed a house!

Sport24 asked: How do you see the front row battle unfurling this time?

Paul Wallace: The battle is going to be huge. The Lions are going to have to scrum well technically as an eight and get their height and dip right at the same time. The set-piece is certainly an area South Africa will always try come at you. Tadhg Furlong will be the likely starting tighthead for the first Test but there are question marks. He is such an immensely powerful player but is also a very high, square scrummager and often leaves himself wide open. If he doesn’t get to overpower the Springboks he might run into a bit of trouble like Phil Vickery did last time out. It will be very interesting to see how he goes in the first few scrums if he starts the series. On the loosehead side, Mako Vunipola hasn’t scrummed so well on the tour thus far but, for me, he is still such a class act. He does so much around the park and would be my starting loosehead. In terms of the Springboks’ front-row options, I thought Ox Nche and Trevor Nyakane went well against Georgia, who are a very good scrummaging side. Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff were the starters in the World Cup final but there is not much in it when it comes to selection. Whatever way it works, the second Springbok front row will be coming on good and early. They’ll get a chance to wreak a bit of second half havoc.

Sport24 asked: Is the officiating at scrum time still a guessing game?

Paul Wallace: I think it’s still a guessing game for most of the referees. To offer an example, some of the scrum calls in the first Test between Australia and France were appalling. Australia were clearly driving straight up and the penalties were going with them. My biggest bugbear at the moment is when you get a drive from one side and they are just penalising for pulling around which is not necessarily the case. In fact, back in the day if a scrum was ever pulling you just disengaged and pulled back. I also think that unless the scrum breaks up or collapses, the referee should allow the front rowers to get on with it. The best people to referee a scrum are the players themselves so let them react to it. It has evolved into colossal battering rams smashing into each other. I know there is talk of TMOs for scrummaging but I’m saying, why don’t you leave the players to deal with it themselves? If the scrum breaks up or goes down, which can be dangerous, then you intervene as a referee but, for me, a lot of the time in the modern game there is too much refereeing intervention.

Sport24 asked: How do you see the three-Test series playing out?

Paul Wallace: In 2009 I called a 2-1 series win for the Lions and am going to make the same prediction this time. The Lions have more experience and variation throughout their squad than the Springboks and better strength in depth. I expect it to be quite an attritional series and having that depth to rely on will prove crucial. One of the big things will be getting selection right and even as an Irishman I have to ask, Is Conor Murray going to go into the side straight away? Conor is a pivotal player and was the best in world rugby during the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand. His form hasn’t been that good for Ireland for a few seasons but he seems to up the tempo in his game for Munster and the Lions. Hopefully we will see Conor get back to his best but there is real competition from Ali Price, who has taken his opportunity really well. The question is do the Lions want to play a high-tempo game or get involved in a real physical battle with South Africa? Official confirmation of Alun Wyn Jones’ return to the Lions touring squad is a significant plus. The 35-year-old is a huge leader and in the mould of McBride and Johnson. The jury is still out as to whether he will get up to speed in terms of fitness and take his place in the starting XV ahead of the likes of Maro Itoje and Iain Henderson. However, having a captain in the front-five fronting South Africa is a big statement because that is where the game will be won or lost against the reigning world champion Springboks.

Previous chats:

BJ Botha

Bruce Fordyce

Eddie Andrews

Raymond Rhule

Robert Hunt

Dean Hall

Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg

Jasper Wiese

William Small-Smith

Matthew Booth

Boebie Solomons

Chris van Zyl

Wim Visser

Morgan Newman

Dewald Potgieter

Daniel Leo

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