So, it’s come around again! The Lions have departed these shores and arrived in South Africa ahead of the most eagerly awaited series since the last tour to the rainbow nation ended back in 1997.
Following the dismal showing that was the 2005 series, where Clive Woodward succeeded in damaging the Lions brand, ethos and future, it looks like current head coach Ian McGeechan is rekindling the spirit of the Lions that he is most famously associated with.
Having toured two times as a player and four times as a coach, Geech is Mr Lions and if there is anyone who knows what the British Lions are all about it is him. Taking any band of players from all four countries who don’t necessarily know each other beforehand and then moulding them not just into a team, but a bunch of team mates is a skill that many other esteemed coaches have tried and failed to achieve. It will be up to Geech and his management team to form that bond amongst the players to turn them into a group of players who want to play not only for themselves, but each other.
Commander in chief in Geech’s mission is tour captain O’Connell. Picked for his imposing presence, it will be vital for the Lions to have a skipper who will lead by example and provide that physically intimidating presence both on and off the field that will encourage and unite his colleagues. It is widely acknowledged that McGeechan likes his captains to be big bruising no nonsense types, just like Martin Johnson when he was picked as the captain by Geech for the last tour to South Africa in 1997.
Of course, that tour contains many other similarities that we can draw comparison from, for example the host nation becoming World Champions not two years previous, the same head coach leading the Lions, the same choice of captain who was not at that time captain of his country, the same vast underdog status going into the tour etc. It is no surprise then, that the Lions can go into the series overwhelming underdogs whilst crucially retaining a sense of optimism that the parallels are there to perhaps indicate that history could be about to repeat itself.
It is of course also important to mention the significance of the Invincibles tour of 1974 as well where the British & Irish Lions swept all before them on an unbeaten 12 week tour of South Africa. The Lions were once again largely expected to cop a bit of a hiding, but the reality was a united Lions side coming through the tour undefeated.
The one distinct difference this time round however, is the fact that the main candidates for the Springbok side are in imperious form going in to the series. After a bit of a slow start at the weekend, the ‘Bok loaded Bulls tore apart the mighty Crusaders to set up a Super 14 final match at their home ground in Pretoria on Saturday. Several contenders for the African test side delighted the home crowd with Pierre Spies and Bryan Habana in particular lighting up the stadium. Worrying signs indeed for the Lions because the last time the Bulls won the Super 14 championship was a few short months before sweeping all before them to win the Web Ellis cup in Paris!
And so it is with trepidation that we look forward to the coming series. The Lions have the benefit of the experiences of 12 years ago and the Invincibles of 74 to draw on as inspiration, whilst the Springboks can certainly claim that the form guide is with them as the current World Champions and will likely have the current winners of the 2009 Super 14 to call on. It makes the series a particularly interesting battle and cannot be further from the one sided affair that took place in New Zealand four years ago.
In order for the Lions to win the series, we think that the Lions have to win the first test to stand any chance of a series win. The second test at altitude in Pretoria will come too soon for the Lions to acclimatise and we feel that the series will go down to the last game with the Lions taking the first and the Bok’s comfortably winning the second.
And then, it is a bit of a lottery… The final game could go either way with the Lions being tired after a long season and the intensity of a six week tour, but the South Africans will also be under the most enormous pressure of expectation from their own set of fans that that may cause them quite a few problems of their own. Tough to call, but we’ll go with our hearts and say that the Lions can and will pull off another skin-of-the-teeth series win over the Boks in Johannesburg.