Are the Lions developing series winning impetus?
Four down, with the first test barely a week away. While the Springboks sit in the stands losing their match hardening, the tourists are looking more ominous with each outing.
In their first three matches, the assortment of results only enforced the argument that it was going to be a Springbok riot over the invading Lions.
The result against a solid looking Currie Cup winning Sharks team, who had eight of their premier division winners on display, put a bit more shine on the tour so far.
The opening match against the Royal XV was mixed, but perspective must be gained from the fact that this was essentially a Vodacom Cup winning Griquas team, and far better than anybody gave them credit for. The Lions did what they needed to do despite playing in only their first match.
Against the Golden Lions, again, little could be gained from playing a team that resembled a rabble. But no doubt the fact that they could stick the knife and keep turning against such a foe was a good sign, a mark of hunger.
The Cheetahs match was a reality check, where Heinrich Brussow (a shocking test omission) led a fierce fight back and exerted terrifying pressure on the Lions breakdown—which appears to be their most glaring weakness.
But the Sharks match was the closest thing the side had laid in regard to a marker so far.
How though the locals must have wished some more of the test representing Sharks were on the field. Pieter De Villiers insistence to cotton wool his Springbok is looking increasingly like folly, while the British and Irish Lions are playing themselves into a competent test team.
Their only fault, aside from inconsistency at the breakdown, is of their finishing. While the Lions coaching staff claim that many moves have not been unleashed, there is still a lack of accuracy at crucial times.
Almost as if they are being too fancy.
A fancy team, but still with weaknesses that a World Champion team will pounce on—but only if they themselves can hit the ground running.
Unlike in 2005 or in 2001, there are Lions though who are looking not only like test match certainties, but also possessing of the necessary class to take down a team that may be the only test match rugby superpower in the world—given the All Blacks injuries and the Wallabies being still in a augmentation period.
Assistant coach Warren Gatland has said that there are only four to five test places still on offer.
Looking at the team from the back, Lee Byrne is close to their best player. Who is three quarter partners will be is still undecided, but one must think that Shane Williams has tried, but not done enough. Even statements such as “class is permanent” cannot apply to a winger that has been out of form for over six months.
Ugo Monye has a bit of X factor, and another spot will likely be decided between the Irish outside backs. With the kicking threat of the Springboks, could the Lions go with twin custodians and select Rob Kearney?
At centre, it looks like Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts will be the money. Combinations are everything and these two are looking like a world class midfield duo.
The playmakers are a lottery. With Mike Phillips looking like the first choice scrum half, perhaps the inside knowledge of a Welsh combination will benefit Stephen Jones. The Welsh 10 looks the better runner and ball carrier, but one thinks that Ronan O’Gara’s educated boot might see him get the nod.
The loose forwards are the key.
Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace and Tom Croft look like the form back row. But while all have shown a fair amount of consistent form, the Lions are still on the back foot at the tackle area for periods in every match so far.
There is no doubt they are finding it difficult to adjust to the looser interpretations of the breakdown in the south, but with Pierre Spies and Schalk Burger hitting those rucks like surface missiles, there will need to be far more of a pack mentality with the side.
The tight five must better support the loose.
Paul O’Connell, a guaranteed starter, is beginning to look like the captain he was picked to be. Alun Wyn Jones looked to have the inside running, but will they fall back on the uncompromising Simon Shaw for mongrel? Whoever wears 4 & 5 will need to be in the form of their lives, to combat the sheer magnificence of King Victor.
In the forwards, Gethin Jenkins and Andrew Sheridan have looked the goods, as has the Lions scrum. For any talk of the South Africans forward power, their scrum is arguably the one aspect of their game that is not world beating.
As it stands, I see the Lions taking the first test.