It has finally arrived! Saturday will see the Paul O’Connell-captained Lions return to the scene of that famous 1997 triumph as they run out in front of 52,000 fans at the ABSA Stadium in Durban, formerly known as King’s Park, for the first Test against the Springboks.
2009 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS TOUR: FIRST TEST: Saturday, June 20
SOUTH AFRICA v BRITISH & IRISH LIONS, ABSA Stadium, Durban, 3pm local time/2pm Irish time (live Sky Sports 1)
Team News: Tour captain Paul O’Connell will lead a Lions team that includes four of his Grand Slam-winning team-mates when Britain and Ireland’s elite meet the Springboks in Saturday’s first Test showdown in Durban.
As expected, O’Connell, Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip have claimed spots in the Lions team for the first Test, while David Wallace had beaten off competition from Martyn Williams for the number 7 jersey.
Saturday’s clash will see Bowe, Heaslip and Wallace make their Test debuts for the Lions.
It will be a fourth Lions Test appearance for O’Connell, who played in all three 2005 Tests against New Zealand and a fifth for Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning skipper O’Driscoll, a Test player from both the 2001 and 2005 tours.
In addition, there are three Ireland players on the bench for this weekend’s match.
Second row Donncha O’Callaghan, who captained the Lions to victory over the Southern Kings on Tuesday, out-half Ronan O’Gara, who landed some crucial kicks in that game, and full-back Rob Kearney, who has recovered from a dead leg, have been pencilled in amongst the replacements.
Both O’Callaghan and O’Gara played against New Zealand on the last Lions tour, while Kearney is on the cusp of making his Test debut in the famous red shirt.
Commenting on the team selection, Lions head coach Ian McGeechan said: “The preparation for the first Test has been very positive.
“It has been a challenge to reach the first Test with an unbeaten record as we have played a variety of provincial teams across the country.
“This challenge is a unique one in the modern rugby calendar in that it comes only in a Lions context these days.
“The players have had to adapt to preparing and playing more frequently. They have answered that challenge.
“It has been 20 years since a Lions team has won all of its’ provincial matches leading up to the Test series so it is very satisfying to be in such a position.
“The entire squad and the management have worked hard to create an outstanding team environment.
“Everyone has done this very professionally and it is fair to say that I would not change anything that we have done so far.”
Meanwhile, following an impressive performance for the Cheetahs against the Lions, flanker Heinrich Brussow has been named in the South Africa team for Saturday’s first Test.
South Africa coach Peter de Villiers has selected a squad with a combined total of 707 caps, with John Smit, the most experienced member of the squad, handed the honour of leading the Springboks out in their first duel against the Lions since 1997.
16 players in the ‘Boks’ matchday 22 participated in their previous Test match, against England at Twickenham in November of last year.
Interestingly, from an Irish viewpoint, 10 of the players in Saturday’s squad were on duty when Ireland beat the ‘Boks 32-15 at Lansdowne Road back in November 2006.
Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers, Francois Steyn, Ricky Januarie, skipper Smit, Juan Smith, Danie Rossouw and Pierre Spies all started against Ireland, while Ruan Pienaar and JP Pietersen had bench roles.
The Test will be the 44th encounter between the Springboks and the Lions since 1891. South Africa has won 21, the Lions 16 and 6 Tests have been drawn.
Saturday’s encounter will also be the fourth between the Springboks and the Lions to be played in Durban.
The hosts have won two of the previous three (1924 and 1962) and the Lions one (1997).
Cheetahs flanker Brussow will make his first Test start after earning his first cap as a replacement against England last November.
Brussow was initially called into the extended squad as cover for calf injury victim Schalk Burger but the management have obviously been impressed enough with his recent form to hand his starting berth.
Bulls out-half Morne Steyn is the only uncapped player in de Villiers’ squad.
SOUTH AFRICA: Francois Steyn (Sharks); JP Pietersen (Sharks), Adrian Jacobs (Sharks), Jean de Villiers (Stormers), Bryan Habana (Bulls); Ruan Pienaar (Sharks), Fourie du Preez (Bulls); Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks), Bismarck du Plessis (Sharks), John Smit (Sharks) (capt), Bakkies Botha (Bulls), Victor Matfield (Bulls), Heinrich Brussow (Cheetahs), Juan Smith (Cheetahs), Pierre Spies (Bulls)
Replacements: Gurthro Steenkamp (Bulls), Deon Carstens (Sharks), Andries Bekker (Stormers), Danie Rossouw (Bulls), Ricky Januarie (Stormers), Jaque Fourie (Lions), Morne Steyn (Bulls).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Lee Byrne (Ospreys/Wales); Tommy Bowe (Ospreys/Ireland), Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster/Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Ugo Monye (Harlequins/England); Stephen Jones (Scarlets/Wales), Mike Phillips (Ospreys/Wales); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Lee Mears (Bath/England), Phil Vickery (London Wasps/England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Paul O’Connell (Munster/Ireland) (capt), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers/England), David Wallace (Munster/Ireland), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland)
Replacements: Matthew Rees (Scarlets/Wales), Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster/Ireland), Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers/England), Ronan O’Gara (Munster/Ireland), Rob Kearney (Leinster/Ireland).
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Stuart Dickinson (Australia), Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Television Match Official: Christophe Berdos (France)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): South Africa to win: 4/11; Draw: 22/1; British & Irish Lions to win: 11/5
Pre-Match Quotes: Ian McGeechan (British & Irish Lions) – “We spent time on each position, and probably deliberated for more than two hours yesterday morning (Wednesday). A lot of players put their hands up, and we had to be fair in how we discussed things.
“We know it’s a different ball game now. I have been very keen all along to give every player every opportunity, and the length of our deliberations showed how many players had put themselves in the frame.
“It challenged us as coaches picking the team.
“I read out the team last night. We’ve made some big decisions as coaches, but to be fair to the players, they wanted it that I would stand in front of them and read out the 22.
“We all then went out for a meal as a whole Lions group and shared each other’s company, which I think is important after an announcement like that.
“South Africa are probably the best team in the world at the moment.
“They are a very talented group, they are settled and they play quite a varied game – from strength and power to subtlety and speed.”
John Smit (South Africa) – “It’s been twelve years coming and it’s a big sigh of relief that it’s actually here now. The magnitude of the Test series is starting to dawn on us fully now.
“It’s been a big weight on our shoulders, now I just hope the quality of the Test can match the hype that has been building for the past two years or so.
“For most players in either 22, this is the last time we will get to experience a Lions tour to South Africa.
“We won’t be able to relive this in twelve years’ time. That means we’re both desperate for a victory, and it certainly adds to the pressure we feel.
“But pressure shouldn’t be viewed as a negative. It keeps us sharp and focused in our task. It’s going to be a massive Test. We know we have to deliver. There are no excuses.
“There was no injustice in 1997. We scored more tries, but at the end of the day we’ve had to watch that Jeremy Guscott drop goal that won the series for the Lions for the last 12 years. But in rugby terms, that series is a lifetime away from this squad.
“We don’t think about revenge. This is a new group of players with an opportunity to achieve something special.”
Pre-Match Links –
Did You Know?:
1 – David Wallace is all set to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother Paul by playing against the Springboks for the British & Irish Lions in a Test match.
Back in 1997, Paul Wallace was one of the shock inclusions in the Test pack to take on the reigning World champions. Twelve years on it will be Munster and Ireland flanker David’s turn to tackle to current holders of the Rugby World Cup.
Paul made his Lions debut in a 25-16 victory at Newlands in Cape Town, while David’s big day will be at the ABSA Stadium in Durban this weekend. He will be one of 10 Lions making their Test debuts in the starting line-up.
2 – Saturday’s game will be only the fourth Test between the Springboks and the Lions in Durban and Paul O’Connell’s men will be looking to make it 2-2. The ‘Boks were 7-3 winners in 1924 and then triumphed 3-0 in 1962.
Martin Johnson’s side clinched the series at King’s Park, now the ABSA Stadium, in 1997 when they won the second Test 18-15. Five penalties from the boot of Neil Jenkins and a drop goal from Jeremy Guscott clinched a famous victory – and series triumph.
3 – They say that winning the first Test in any series is vital and the statistics back up that statement. This will be the 13th series played between the Springboks and Lions in South Africa and the side that has won the first Test has gone on to take the series nine times previously.
The 1891, 1896, 1974 and 1997 Lions all won the first Test and then the series, while the Springboks did the same in 1910, 1924, 1938, 1968 and 1980.
The odd years out were 1903 and 1962, when the first games were drawn, and 1955.
In both 1903 and 1962 the Springboks went on to clinch the series, while in 1955 the Lions triumphed in Johannesburg before sharing the series 2-2.