No rugby tour to the southern hemisphere is ever easy, but a tour to South Africa is always that extra bit special and will prove to be a huge test of mental strength and character, especially upÃ‚Â against the defending World Champions. South Africa is a fiercely proud nation with an almost unrivalled passion and enthusiasm for the sport which won’t make it an easy feat for Ian McGeechan’s side to come home victorious.
The Lions began their campaign with a shaky and nervy 25-37 win over the Royal XV in Rustenburg on May 30, the same day that the Bulls met the Chiefs in the Super 14 final. The opposition, made up primarily from Currie Cup sides Griqualand West and Platinum Leopards, were widely considered as a poor side which should have posed no problems, but the outcome was quite unexpected.
The Lions were trailing 18-3 and were close to experiencing an early embarrassment before substitute Alun-Wyn Jones rescued the pride of the team by scoring a try in the dying minutes. Had players like Ronan O’Gara not made huge individual contributions, himself scoring 22 points, the Lions may have suffered their first defeat in an opening tour game since 1971.
There were eight players making their debuts for the Lions and Keith Earls, among others, expressed their inexperience by making silly mistakes. Earls committing three crucial knock-ons, one of which led to the Royal’s first try, scored by Willhelm Koch who picked a gap in the defence. Naas Olivier scored two penalties and two conversions.
O’Gara also set up the Lions’ first try of the campaign by offloading the ball to Tommy Bowe who ran in and dived over the line to score. Welsh intervention brought the Lions back into contention when full-back Lee Byrne – undoubtedly the best player for the visitors – volleyed his own chip over the top and then caught the loose ball to score the five points.
The Lions had to improve on this performance, even just to regain some confidence. They will have been grateful that the limelight was taken off them a bit given the domestic competition final inevitably grabbed more of the headlines.
The Lions second game saw them score an incredible ten tries, (a record win), against a poor Golden Lions team, previously known as Gauteng and Transvaal. The British and Irish improved on their shaky opening fixture and ran out 10-74 winners in the Coca-Cola Park stadium in Johannesburg four days ago.
Tries were scored by Jamie Roberts, Tommy Bowe and Ugo Monye, claiming a brace of tries each, while captain Brian O’Driscoll, flanker Tom Croft and substitutes James Hook and Stephen Ferris also touched down in the opposition’s end.
Fly-half, Stephen Jones made a strong claim for his place in the Test side by scoring a solid 18 points while James Hook came on to score three late conversions. The pure domination and destruction inflicted by the Lions allowed head coach Ian McGeechan to use all his substitutions halfway throught the second half.
The coach was able to give everyone a run out on the pitch, especially important when the squad is made of 38 players and everyone is desperate for a chance to prove their worth and fight for that place in the starting XV in a Test match.
The Golden Lions’ coach had been sacked not long before the game and there was much talk of player unrest, which cannot have helped their pre-match build-up. The first-ever fixture between the two sides dates back to 1891.
The game began with an injury suffered by flanker David Wallace in the early stages of the game. He tried to charge down number 15 Louis Ludik’s clearance and accidentally caught a stray boot in his ribs. He bravely continued after receiving treatment however Ludik, a shoe-in for the Springboks starting XV as full-back, was stretchered off nursing a serious knee injury.
Yesterday the Lions clung on to win 24-26 against the Cheetahs at the Vodacom Park stadium in Bloemfontein. The Cheetahs had had a disappointing season in the Super 14, finishing bottom of the table, and therefore had a massive point to prove.
The tourists started well and were 20-0 ahead with two early tries from the two Ulster men, Stephen Ferris (flanker) and Keith Earls (centre-wing). By half time the hosts had painted a very different picture by scoring two of their own tries courtesy of Danwel Demas and Wian Du Preez.
The Lions continued to apply pressure in the second half knowing full well that a 23-14 lead was too marginal against an ever more determined Cheetahs team aiming to derail the Lions and end their flurry of wins at this early stage of campaign.
The Lions were unable to convert any of their possession into any valuable points and were given a huge wake-up call when Corne Uys scored an interception try for the Cheetahs with eight minutes on the clock.
Louis Strydom also saw his last-gasp drop-goal effort drift just wide for the Cheetahs which could have changed everything. The Lions had just enough bite to hold on and their Welsh fly-half James Hook put on a fine display, scoring both conversions and four penalties the first one in the opening six minutes, which went a long way to securing the win.
Next up is a tough fixture against the Sharks on Wednesday night, when the Lions will be hoping to emulate the 1997 side which won here, in Durban, 42-12 followed by Western Province on Saturday at the Newlands Stadium.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas