The South Africans have been waiting 12 years for this. In 1997, the Lions arrived to play the World Champions and nobody gave them a prayer. They were short of superstars, had a young captain and a number of unknown quantities. They won the series with a game to spare and the tour has already gone down in legend. The Springboks want revenge, the Lions want to seize the moment and prove that the tours are still a viable proposition.
So let’s have a look at the key battles in the context of how many players on each team would be contenders for a world 15. This is clearly a pretty simplistic way to assess a team but it identifies those players who could play the seminal roles in the coming series.
The front rows are reasonably well balanced. Either Gethin Jenkins or Andrew Sheridan would rival Tony Woodcock of New Zealand for the loosehead spot with the Beast not quite top quality yet. Bismarck Du Plessis of South Africa has only Stephen Moore of Australia to compete with him and Phil Vickery and John Smith are both top performers but neither is up there with Carl Hayman.
The back 5 of the scrum is a different question entirely. Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield both lead the field in the second row. The Lions have quality and options in this position but they, as with everyone else in the world, possess nobody who would be able to break up that pairing. The back row is a similar story. Only Richie McCaw and Sergio Parisse would be able to break into the unit of Juan Smith, Schalk Burger and Pierre Spies. The Lions will field a competitive trio but nobody as yet who is really from the absolute top drawer of international back row forwards.
So in the pack, there are arguably no Lions who would make a World XV and only a couple who would get much of a look in. In contrast, South Africa possess 3 shoo-ins in Matfield, Botha and Smith and other serious contenders in Du Plessis and Spies.
What of the backs? In Fourie Du Preez, South Africa can boast arguably the outstanding player in world rugby at the moment. He is streets ahead of the next best scrum half, however much Mike Phillips may like to contest that assessment. He has everything and if the Lions can stop him, they will go a long way to nullifying the Springboks as a whole.
There are some fly halves in the world at the moment of the very top class but none of them will be on show in this series. Stephen Jones and Ronan O’Gara are very good international players but not in the class of Dan Carter, Matt Giteau or Juan-Martin Hernandez. Ruan Pienaar is developing and Morne Steyn is likely to be the long-term Springbok 10 but neither is proven. Potentially the finest fly half in either squad, James Hook, may not be involved in the tests at all.
There could be a titanic match up in the centres. Jamie Roberts is the most improved centre around and he will be facing Jean De Villiers who, when on form, is as good as anybody. However he is short of fitness and form. O’Driscoll has shown signs of rediscovering himself on this trip and there are still few, if any 13s in the world who could better him. One of them, Jacque Fourie (the others being Stirling Mortlock and Luke McAlister), who has been in scintillating form for the Lions, is likely to be edged out of the starting line-up by the solid, but more limited Adrian Jacobs.
There is a lack of really world-class wingers at present but South Africa possess the one man who undoubtedly fits that description in Bryan Habana. It is strange that the 2008 World Player of the Year is unlikely to make the Lions side but Shane Williams’ loss of form has been dramatic and could hinder the Lions. JP Pietersen was a real star of the 2007 World Cup. However, Tommy Bowe has been arguably the player of the trip so far and Ugo Monye is improving all aspects of his game at an impressive rate. Neither is yet in the class of a Habana or a Rokocoko but could be soon.
To my mind, full back is the only position in which the Lions possess the clear front runner for a World XV. Lee Byrne has confirmed on this tour that he is a genuinely class player, rather than just a good one in an excellent run of form. Mils Muliaina and Maxime Medard have cases but this is one area where the Lions have a clear advantage in this series.
South Africa then, have 5 players who are very probably in best in the world in their positions, in Matfield, Botha, Smith, Du Preez and Habana. In Du Plessis, Burger, Spies, De Villiers and Pietersen, they have 5 more who could be serious contenders. The Lions by contrast, have only clear front-runner in Lee Byrne, a ‘likely’ in O’Driscoll and offer options on both sides of the front row in Jenkins, Sheridan and Vickery. In terms of individual personnel then, South Africa have the greater pedigree.
But as we know very well, international rugby is about so much more than that. The Lions have the shared experience of five weeks swimming uphill to become a top side; South Africa can boast the shared experience of winning a World Cup. 12 years ago, the former held sway over the latter. There will be some titanic individual battles as well as the fascination of how the teams will blend together. Where is your money this time?
by Stuart Peel