It is one month until the 32nd tour for the British & Irish Lions, as the South Africans now look to compete for places as the Super 14 reaches its climax.
While many pundits believe that it will be a South African walkover, we should ask; what actually backs this up?
First, let us look at some historic parallels to their last tour.
As the 2009 Super 14 pans out, we have two South African sides, the Bulls and Sharks, threatening the top four. While they are legitimate title contenders, they have still lost six matches between them, and have not dominated as we have seen Crusaders and Blues teams in the past.
In the 1997 Super 12, the Natal Sharks finished fourth, and the Gauteng Lions fifth. In both years, South Africans were/are not completely dominating their contemporary rivals in the Tri Nations.
In the preceding test season to the 1997 tour, the Springboks registered an 8-5 record. Here they lost back to back tests away to begin the Tri Nations, and suffered a 1-3 series defeat at home to the All Blacks. On the end of year tour they only narrowly defeated France by one point in the second test at the Parc de Princes.
Last year, much has been said of the Springboks successes, namely a 30-28 victory in Carisbrook to break a 10 match losing streak in New Zealand, and inflicting heavy defeats on the Wallabies and English, 53-8 and 42-6 respectively.
But while Robbie Deans labelled South Africa the best side in the world, during their first year reign as World Champions, they recorded a 9-4 record, losing to both the All Blacks and Wallabies away and at home—including a humiliating 19-0 loss to New Zealand at Newlands. They also utilised narrow get out of jail victories against the Welsh and Scotland.
So what of the actual South African test teams?
The 1997 team was solid, with a backline containing Joost van Der Westhuizen, Henry Honiball, Andre Joubert, and James Small. A typically uncompromising pack featured Gary Teichmann, Mark Andrews, Ruben Kruger, and Os du Randt.
For the 2009 team; John Smit, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith, and Pierre Spies would compete for a current World XV berth. Equally, players such as Jean De Villiers, Bryan Habana, and Jacque Fourie are among the best backs in the world.
Indeed, many of these players—with a 12 year cycle between Lions tours for each respective nation—would have based their decision not to chase the riches of Europe for the chance to feature in the historic test series.
It is this stability in their team that would give them an edge over the side selected n 1997.
Smit, likely Springbok captain and the most capped South African forward, would go down as arguably their greatest Bok player ever if he takes his team to a World Cup and Lions series triumph in the space of three years.
The Lions are not making any great attempts to disguise how they will try and defeat the World Champions. They have picked probably the most intimidating forwards on offer in Europe. Not the most skilled (as evidenced by the omission of Tom Croft), but men who will stand up to the Bok menace.
With Stephen Jones and Ronan O’Gara picked as their playmakers, we might not exactly see 10 man rugby from the tourists, but it may not be far from that for their tactical stratagem.
So where will the Bok’s win this series?
Not in the scrum. Despite a historic tendency to note the South Africans as feared scrummagers, they are not the best in the world. Grudgingly, that honour would belong to the All Blacks.
The likes of Gethin Jenkins, Euan Murray, and Phil Vickery will keep the Lions front row on par with a Springbok front row that is solid, but hardly world class.
In the lineout, the Lions have effectively conceded this set piece. Led by Victor Matfield, with giants such as Bakkes Botha, Andries Bekker, and David De Villiers, the South Africans have more test quality lock forwards than any other nation—let alone an assembly of home union’s jumpers.
Equally, the South African back row is filled with lineout options, as well as a plethora of selection options.
Here though, the makeup of the Lions loose forwards tells a clear story. Gerald Davies opened the Lions announcement press conference by saying they proposed to play smart rugby.
Often smart rugby is not “beating a side,” as much as upsetting their rhythm.
Joe Worsley, Martyn Williams, and Stephen Ferris, but most notably the Munster combination of David Wallace and Alan Quinlan, make for a tenacious, scrapping collection of defensive flankers.
These men will not fly through the air to compete with the South African ball. But they will harass, slow down, and fly at the charging Springbok runners, and upset any thought of quality recycling.
You can win a game of rugby without dominating the set piece, but you can’t win it without consistent, clean ball. If the Lions can succeed on this front, the series will be half won.