So the Lions Tour has got off to an inauspicious start as the tourists laboured to victory in what should have been their easiest match of the tour. It is the case that South Africa is probably second only to New Zealand in terms of strength in depth and there are some outstanding players playing in the second tier, but they should not really have been troubling the cream of the British Isles.
Jamie Roberts was one of the Lions’ brighter performers
It is possible to plead mitigating circumstances but just as easy to blow every argument out of the water. The Lions were obviously a scratch team, finding their feet having been given cruelly little preparation time. They were also playing at altitude for the first time. But their opponents had been thrown together at short notice too. For the South Africans, playing against the Lions was the biggest day of their lives so they were supercharged. But pulling on the Lions shirt for the first time was the biggest thing most of the tourists had ever done, for all that they may have one eye on greater challenges ahead.
One should not read too much into the first game of the tour. In 2001, a Jason Robinson-inspired Lions outfit stuck 100 points on a bunch of Australian farmers (not the same strength in depth in Australia) but still went on to lose the series, although it remains a mystery how they lost to a palpably inferior team. In 2005, the Lions scrambled a draw with Argentina. This was supposed to be a wake-up call but the Lions promptly hit snooze and never really arose from their slumbers at any stage. Months and years would go on to show just how poor those Lions were and equally how strong an outfit the Pumas were.
Still, one victory under the belt is not to be sniffed at. The make-up of the Lions squad has been greatly influenced by the coaches’ assessment of who can figure out how to win games come-what-may. That ability was demonstrated on Saturday and, whether they were expected to need that particular skill or not, that was encouraging. It is also just as important to rule players out rather than in. You would rather not pick a team on the basis of choosing the least worst player but it is important to learn now whether a particular back row combination or half back partnership does not look likely to function.
Save for a knock to Keith Earls, they would appear to have got through the match relatively unscathed, unlike 4 years ago when Lawrence Dallaglio lasted barely half an hour. It will never be known just how big an impact that had on the tour but had the Lions lost a leader such as David Wallace or Martyn Williams yesterday, whether they eventually make the test team or not, the Lions’ already shaky prospects would have dwindled just that little bit more.
The warm up games are always fascinating and are always watched with great interest by all. The truncated nature of this tour means that the narrative and personal battles within the squad will not have time to develop to quite the same extent as on previous occasions but it remains absorbing nonetheless. It would be great this week to see some fringe players launch a charge towards Test contention, a la Jeremy Guscott in 1989, Scott Gibbs in 1993, Jeremy Davidson, Tom Smith and John Bentley in 1997, Jason Robinson in 2001. Who has got the balls to rise above the crowd and make this his time? It is going to be thrilling to find out.
By Stuart Peel