Ever since Bill MacLagan led the Lions on their first tour to South Africa in 1891, the Springboks have never managed to whitewash the British and Irish tourists in a Test series.
The Lions have come away from the Rainbow Nation four times without a win, but on each occasion, they scraped at least one draw. It is a record that most Lions fans will be clinging on to this week ahead of the third and final confrontation in Johannesburg.
All the pre-match hype has focused on the Lions’ anger at Schalk Burger’s eye-gouging incident, but if punters were to look through the red mist, they would see that the tourists’ cupboard is threadbare. The Lions’ luck with injuries and suspensions has been appalling, and the count now stands at 11 of the original 37-man party who are unavailable. Moreover, the latest injuries to the Lions could not have had a bigger impact on their chances of salvaging any pride from this tour at Ellis Park.
Losing Welsh props Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins is a catastrophe. If you look at the two Tests played so far, Jones and Jenkins were playing in tandem from the 44th minute of the Durban Test until the 45th minute of the violent clash at Loftus Versfeld last week. The forward platform that they helped create saw the Lions win that period of the series by 30 points to 15.
It is going to be a significant challenge for Phil Vickery, who is still suffering from a throat infection, if he is to front-up successfully against Tendai Mtawarira, the South African prop who gave him such a beasting in Durban. It is a test that even Graham Rowntree, the Lions forwards coach, is unsure about.
He said: “It’ll be a huge psychological challenge for Phil after what happened in the first Test. He will have to pick up technically and emotionally.”
The concussion to Brian O’Driscoll and the wrist injury to Jamie Roberts is also a severe blow. O’Driscoll and Roberts have been consistently the Lions’ most potent attacking weapon. The Irishman also plays a key role in Shaun Edwards’ umbrella defensive system, acting as a blitz defender, a task which O’Driscoll goes about with the gusto of a blind-side flanker.
These injuries have therefore ripped the heart out of the Lions. It would have been horrible enough if this situation had occurred before the first Test, when the tourists were full of optimism and momentum. But the Lions come into this final game on the back of a heart-breaking 28-25 loss. Captain Paul O’Connell admitted on Tuesday that it was difficult to motivate the players after that Loftus defeat. Even the most jovial and positive tourist, Ian McGeechan, could not remember a time when he felt as sad as he did after the Springboks pinched it in Pretoria.
To top it all off, the British media seem to have ignored the significant fact that the hosts are seething as well. The ridiculous posturing of Springbok coach Peter de Villiers aside, the South African’s are smarting from the fact that their glorious series victory has been completely overshadowed by Burger’s five seconds of madness.
There is a huge feeling of resentment in the Bok camp that they have not been given credit where credit is due.
Gary Gold, the Springbok assistant coach, who can string a sentence together without the moronic ramblings of de Villiers, said: “We worked really hard to beat what we thought was a world class Lions team, and we don’t really feel that we have received enough credit for that.
“Winning this series was an extremely tough challenge for us, and some of the players felt it was as tough as anything they have ever experienced on the rugby field. To come back with 20 minutes to go like we did in the test in Pretoria was an amazing achievement and one we should be proud of.”
If any doubts remain about just how motivated the Springboks are for this, then it pays to listen to how Gold signed off.
“I think there was a lot of expectation ahead of the series, and when we dominated the first hour of the Durban Test I suppose we should have pushed on to win by 30 to 40 points.
“And I agree that for much of the Pretoria test we were outplayed and made a lot of mistakes. There is a lot of incentive for us to win this series 3-0, however, and that is what we are aiming to do.”
I completely understand where Betfair layers are coming from in offering up the Springboks at 1.41. Two Tests and two narrow defeats within the handicap indicate that the Lions have been underrated. But this is a different challenge, with a thoroughly weaker team. And if anything, the changes that de Villiers has made makes the home side stronger in all the right positions.
Gone is Ruan Pienaar, who missed numerous opportunities at goal last weekend. Gone also are centres Jean de Villiers and Adrian Jacobs who looked defensively frail against O’Driscoll and Roberts. In their places slots in the thoroughly reliable fly-half Morne Steyn, who kicked the winner last week, and Jaque Fourie and Wynand Olivier combine to create a centre pairing that was devastating throughout 2006 and 2007.
It’s whitewash time and I’m backing the Springboks by more than 12.5 points at 2.54.
Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. Ã‚Â© The Sporting Exchange Limited
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly