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English cricket needs to find one-day winners [Sep. 18th, 2009|10:49 am]
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 Gee, it didn’t take very long for the feel-good effect to disappear from English cricket, did it?
 
All those joyful celebrations and happy scenes at The Oval just a few weeks back have been rammed back down our throats by the Aussies. Six-nil down in a seven-match One Day International series? How pathetic is that?
 
The same old names and failures have trotted out for match after match. Players sometimes make a decent 20, 30 or even occasionally a 40, like Kent’s Joe Denly who got to 45 this week and then chucked his wicket away.
 
The Australians are a different breed. They regard 45 as a failure because they want to reach 50. And if they get out between 50 and 100 they regard that as a failure because they want to make a ton. These are crucial differences in the psychological make-up of the two peoples. Aussies are fighters, not for nothing renowned for their ability to scrap their way out of most situations by dint of sheer graft and bloody mindedness. 
 
When you look at what has happened since, you honestly wonder how on earth England won the Ashes.  Chiefly because Australia had one dire session in their first innings; that was the main reason ...
 
Imagine how they felt after they’d lost the Ashes at The Oval for the second time in four years? They were hurting like hell. Their response has been typical of the sort of people they are, innate fighters. But then, maybe when you are that low, you do fight harder. After all, England lost the last Ashes series in Australia 5-0 in 2007 but then promptly went out and won the ODI tournament. So there is a corollary there.
 
But what mystifies me about England is why they don’t look elsewhere for players who might succeed. It seems once you’re in an England squad, you can’t get out of it. Yet England only have to look at the example of Jonathan Trott, the player they brought in for his Test debut amidst the excruciating pressure of that final Ashes Test which England had to win to take the series.
 
Trott got into the 40s in his first innings before being unluckily run out and then made 119 in his second knock. 
 
What England’s ODI team urgently needs is someone who can bat through most of the 50 overs. Isn’t Trott worth a try for that job? Isn’t Kent’s Geraint Jones, who has moved up the order to No. 3 this year and made a stack of runs to help his county to the 2nd division Championship title, worth looking at as a batsman? Jones could always bat well at Test level; it was his wicket-keeping which was the weak part of his game. But now, isn’t he worth considering, even just as a batsman? It’s not as if Matt Prior is doing anything much.
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Lions tour only highlights Springbok deficiencies [Jul. 6th, 2009|11:18 am]
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The 2009 Lions leave South Africa on Monday night, the Test series lost and yet, curiously, their concept re-invigorated.
 
No doubt partly due to South Africa's poor, dreadfully uneven performances during the Test series, the Lions escaped the 3-0 whitewash which an efficient, properly structured Springbok side would inevitably have inflicted. In the end, the Lions left bemoaning the fact that, but for a mere handful of points, a 2-1 series defeat could easily have been a draw or even a win.
 
No greater indictment of these misfiring Springboks exists than that fact. South African rugby has declined since the peak of the 2007 World Cup triumph.
 
Yet perhaps even more importantly, in the course of just six weeks, Lions coach Ian McGeechan and his colleagues repaired a great deal of the damage done to the Lions ethos by Clive Woodward's mad japes in 2005 in New Zealand. Now there's a thought, incidentally – imagine a Lions side coached by Woodward against a Springbok side coached by Peter de Villiers. Endless material for the men in white coats...
 
But significant factors still imperil the Lions. As Jeremy Guscott so rightly said last week "If the countries hosting the Lions do not give them proper respect by fielding as full strength sides as possible against them in the midweek games, then they place in peril the whole Lions idea."
 
Other elements have to change, too, for us to say with confidence the 2009 Lions' greatest achievement in future times will be seen to have restored the credibility of the brand. Not, mark you, the financial success of the brand; that is assured as long as tens of thousands of Brits and not a few Irishmen wish to splash their hard earned cash on the mother of all drinking sessions across the southern hemisphere for a few weeks every four years.
 
In Cape Town one night, one travelling Lions supporter splashed Rand 38,000 (approx. £3000) on a single bottle of French brandy. The bar manager's smile was still as wide as the Vaal river the next evening.
 
The onus here lies on the hosting unions. If, for example, Australia in four years time takes a similarly mercenary view of the tour as the South African rugby union of this one, then the future growth of the game will be actually stunted by the presence of the Lions.
 
I lost count of the number of people in Durban and Cape Town who told me that, lifelong rugby fans notwithstanding, they flatly refused to be fleeced by a greedy SARU charging European ticket prices in the southern hemisphere. So fathers refused to take kids to see the famous Lions….. How wonderful. Those at the top of South African rugby plus the Lions top brass if, as is alleged, they were in on the deal, should be ashamed of themselves for creating such a damaging trend in the game.
 
I wouldn't put it past Australia to do the same thing in four years time. But if the Lions concept is now little more than a cash bonanza for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, let's finish it here and now. I'd rather just have the memories than be confronted with that sordid sight every four years.
 
But the Lions themselves need to learn lessons, too. They didn't get out enough to see a wonderful country with all its fantastic people, beautiful scenery and enchanting sights. Too many of them, too often sat in their rooms idling time away. For that, you have to look at the management and their obsession with training. They should have insisted the players went on more organised trips, met more strangers. A constant diet of non-stop training will turn potentially bright young minds into robots. That speaks ill of the great traditions of this game.
 
Other things need tweaking. 10 matches is too short, although the Lions suffered self inflicted wounds when McGeechan refused to give his 1st Test side a run-out the previous weekend. That was a crass mistake.
 
For me, the tourists need at least one more warm-up match and probably a further game, making it a 12-match tour. IF, that is, they are to be confronted by proper teams, not'B' sides. If that happens again, they should just fly in for Tests and fly out. Depressing yes, but inevitable. No-one wants to see a series of six or seven irrelevant mismatches that mean nothing.
 
As ever, you thank the host country for the memories. My favourite? Playing tag rugby last Friday morning with a group of local kids on a rough, scrubby field in the heart of Johannesburg's tough Alexandra township, in an event arranged by tour sponsors HSBC. On that occasion, five Lions did turn up and participate.
 
I'd suggest they shared my view that to see the smiles on the faces of children with so little and almost certainly with so much heartache and deprivation in their lives was simply priceless. That is and always was one of the best moments of Lions tours.
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South Africa show alarming weakness against the Lions [Jul. 5th, 2009|09:19 pm]
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 Now try telling the South African public everything is fine in their rugby garden.

 

Try, too, suggesting that this Test didn’t matter, that with the series won, it was a dead rubber of no interest to the Springboks. What, with a 118 year record to break ? If the world champions were short on motivation with a unique series whitewash over the Lions within touching distance, they shouldn’t have been out there.

 

Such talk won’t wash. The fact was, the Springboks were desperately poor, a weak shadow of the side they ought to be. But then, can we be surprised given the fact that the ‘Boks played for only the first 50 minutes in Durban and the last 20 in Pretoria ? Here, they faced a Lions side without probably its five top players yet the South Africans looked second best throughout the game.

 

No, the fact is, the ludicrous build-up to this Test match with the Springbok coach and not his players again the focus of attention, was a clear and very obvious distraction to the team. Peter de Villiers’ lunatic antics and crazy statements are starting to have a direct effect on the performances of his team on the field.

 

The world champions were all over the place again, just as they had been for an hour in Pretoria. Sure, they were without eight of their best players but the talent coming through in this country is such that they ought to been able to withstand those absentees and still produce enough to beat a similarly depleted Lions side.

 

The fact that the Springboks were so outplayed was a dire indictment of what is going on within their camp. Mistakes can always be made by individuals, that is inevitable and excusable. What is not acceptable is a complete lack of structure within a team that calls itself world champions.

 

Certain players looked only moderately interested, others quickly sized up that, given the general mess and mediocrity, they had little chance of turning the tide. A couple of the youngsters hurriedly brought back into the fray in the second half, Ruan Pienaar (as a scrum half) and Frans Steyn, raged against the dying of the light and the mess around them. But too few others managed much.

 

In this Lions series, South Africa have looked a shadow of the disciplined, focused, organised side which won the World Cup less than 24 months ago. We have to ask, why that is, what has changed to have so profound an effect. The answer, fairly obviously, is the coach.

 

De Villiers has too many demons, too many imagined enemies to fight off the field to be able to focus 100% on on the field matters. His Springbok team is proving that, by the alarmingly unpredictable performances they are producing, veering wildly from occasionally outstanding (in the first 50 minutes at Durban until the coach wrecked their rhythm by withdrawing many of his top men) to abject, which was the case yesterday.

 

To see a South African side so lacking in shape and discipline was a worry with the Tri-Nations so close. De Villiers sought to suggest that inferior performances by certain players unable to make the step up from Super 14 to Test rugby, was the reason the Boks failed yesterday.

 

Yet how come many of those players looked world class in that Super 14 final only recently ? Can they play or can’t they ? It appears they can, in certain situations. For sure, they never did at Coca Cola Park yesterday.

 

Heinrich Brussow did his best to make a real impact up front and won some useful turnovers. But the Lions had a greater belief in what they were trying to do, much better organisation in pursuit of it and far more commitment.

 

Professional players cannot say it didn’t matter, it was an irrelevance. No Test match can fall into that category. So major questions ought to be asked of this South African squad, even though they won this Lions series 2-1.

 

Performances like this simply won’t do, whatever the circumstances.

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HSBC's Lions sponsorship is commendable [Jul. 2nd, 2009|11:02 am]
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Banks, eh? Most of this nation and plenty of others around the world would like to see those who run them strung up from the nearest lamp post.
 
Politicians might be running them a close second in the ‘Most Loathed Section of the Community' stakes. But you'd hardly find anyone with a good word to say about the banks and what they've been up to.
 
Well, here is someone. You might need to read these words twice, just to be sure. But this is a story about a bank and the excellent, outstanding work it has quietly been doing for rugby and deprived communities in some of the most disadvantaged parts of South Africa.
 
Estimates suggest that HSBC Bank spent between £3 and £4 million sponsoring the 2009 Lions tour. But what isn't quite as well known is that an estimated £1 million more has been spent on things like associated activities surrounding the tour.
 
What HSBC has been doing in the poor regions of this country is commendable. In tough, still grievously deprived areas like Soweto and Alexandra townships, plus Rustenburg, HSBC ambassadors have been into the townships, spreading the rugby gospel, handing out kit, planting trees and enthusing the youngsters about a game virtually none of them knew a matter of weeks ago.
 
It's easy to be cynical in the modern world and suggest that rich banks only do this sort of thing to ‘buy' some free publicity. But let's look at the facts and you can judge for yourselves whether we ought to remain cynical or try being positive.
 
More than 4,000 kids have been ‘reached' in South Africa by HSBC's programme, 82% of whom had never played the game before. Five separate rugby festivals have been held, Gauteng, Simondium, Port Elizabeth, Durban and East London. The organisers have worked with ‘Tag Rugby' to create a safe, happy environment in which boys and girls from the ages of 6 to 14 have been able to run around, throw rugby balls about and generally put a smile on their faces. All of the youngsters have come from townships.
 
The scheme started three months before the Lions tour even began and will continue after its end, in Johannesburg this Saturday. Bank staff in centres like Johannesburg have given up many of their recent weekends to go into the townships to spread the rugby gospel. From each festival, a child has been chosen to be the official mascot at the Lions' non-Test games. None of them had ever been to a rugby match before; few had ever left their deprived home conditions. This is the reality of modern day South Africa.
 
About 1,000 tickets were given away to the children and local schools to see some of the Lions games, with transport there and back provided.
 
When officials went to Rustenburg, early in the tour, to an orphanage called the SOS Children's Village, they found children with nothing, wearing shabby, torn clothes trying to raise the enthusiasm to play in the street. No facilities existed for them.
 
The bank has a long standing relationship with Education Africa, a Johannesburg based charity, and they have built a sports pitch, at a cost of around £250,000, for youngsters from the Orange Farm community at Masibambane College near Johannesburg. Thousands of local youngsters will be able to use this much needed facility for years to come.
 
Springbok wing Bryan Habana, adored by millions of South African kids, turned up unannounced at the Port Elizabeth Festival, to join in. Habana refused any payment and demanded no PR or publicity prior to his visit. When he arrived, 1000 local kids went wild with joy. Habana coached for two hours and talked to the youngsters, telling them they could achieve things in life if they were dedicated.
 
And the Lions themselves? Well, they went to just one event, just the four of them. But to make it possible, the sponsors had to pay £1,000 to hire a helicopter and fly them there. But Brian O'Driscoll, Nathan Hines, Gethin Jenkins and Ugo Monye were in for a shock. As they coached and mingled with the kids, they began to understand that there are other things in life, other priorities apart from rugby tours and matches.
 
They were all deeply moved by the experience and O'Driscoll is said to be donating all his training kit from the tour to the Township. Since then, England centre Riki Flutey has asked whether there will be any other opportunities to experience such things. It looks doubtful.
 
For the most part, these Lions have just trained and prepared, played matches, travelled and trained again. They have attended far too few events of this kind in a country where such acts of kindness and generosity are so needed.
 
One senior photographer on the Lions tour who went to the pitch opening at Masibambane, called it "the best day of the whole tour". From such hard nosed media men, that said a lot about this particular bank's efforts to help the local communities.

   
   
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Lions will have the scent of blood in their nostrils [Jun. 29th, 2009|02:23 pm]
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So the Lions have gone into the bush for a couple of days to lick their wounds.
 
We have to hope all those cuts have healed and the flow of blood from Saturday's brutal Pretoria Test has been stemmed. Otherwise, they might be confronted with the unedifying sight of lions chasing Lions with the smell of blood in their nostrils.
 
At Loftus last weekend, it was Springboks who had the taste for blood. Lions doctor James Robson, normally a master of diplomacy, said revealingly "It certainly was a fairly brutal game. As the casualty list goes, it is not something I am happy with."
 
Not surprising, either. Welsh props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones are out of the tour, Brian O'Driscoll who suffered concussion is also likely to be sidelined for this Saturday's 3rd Test in Johannesburg, Irish wing Tommy Bowe damaged an elbow and Welsh centre Jamie Roberts, a wrist.
 
The Lions are due to arrive back in Johannesburg late Monday evening, ready for another training session on Tuesday. But what state will they be in to confront the world champions for a third time in successive weeks? Pretty poor, is the answer.
 
These Lions were hardly flushed with an abundance of world class talent even when they left London. Right now, in their greatly weakened state, they are down to the bare bones and will find it massively difficult to raise themselves for Saturday's final Test, especially with the series already lost.
 
As 1993 Lions assistant coach Dick Best, who was in Pretoria on Saturday, said "The final Test is always tough. You are thinking of home, the players have been training and playing for 10 months at least. They desperately need a break, a decent rest. They're doing last minute shopping and thinking of anything but another Test match. It'll be very hard for them in Johannesburg."
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Injuries ruined any chance for the Lions [Jun. 29th, 2009|11:54 am]
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South Africa produced a miserably disappointing performance of just 18 minutes of rugby in Pretoria on Saturday. Yet it was enough to defeat the Lions and clinch the Test series.
 
Why? Because the extra gear the world champions eventually found, which is clearly within their capacity, was enough to overturn 55 minutes of Lions ascendancy in the game. That extra gear put them on a level beyond the range of this modest Lions side.
 
The reasons why the Lions have failed in this series are clear. With their best 15 players, they have been competitive. But once injuries have eliminated some of those key performers, the replacements just haven't been good enough to plunge into the fray against the powerful if erratic Springboks.
 
On Saturday, the loss of both props, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, who had done sterling work in overturning the Springboks' 1st Test scrummage supremacy, was catastrophic for the Lions. That they both departed after only five minutes of the second half was a tragedy.
 
Yet worse was to follow with Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts also being forced off. The sad failing of Ronan O'Gara as a replacement underlined the chasm that exists between the 15 top men of these Lions and the remainder.
 
The likely absence of most if not all of that quartet in the final Test in Johannesburg this Saturday leaves the Lions highly vulnerable. They will do well to avoid a heavy defeat, never mind the seemingly inevitable 3-0 series whitewash.
 
None of this surprises those from the northern hemisphere who deal in facts and present day realities, not fantasy. The emotional language talked in too many quarters about these Lions and their prospects fuelled a completely unrealistic expectation. What we have seen was predictable. For the cruellest fact of all is that the Springboks haven't even had to play well to win the series at a canter.
 
In Durban, the ‘Boks played for 50 minutes before falling apart, undone by their own coach's lunatic whims. At Pretoria, the hosts produced only 18 minutes of play that resembled that of world champions. It was still enough.
 
These Lions have been exposed, albeit only in flashes, to the physical intensity, the dynamism and potential pace of the game in the southern hemisphere. It has found them wanting, as it was always likely to do. The important thing is whether the lessons will be learned from the experience.
 
I don't believe it is appropriate to heap blame on the Lions coaching staff. Yes, they made some absurd decisions, like omitting England flanker Tom Croft from the original 37 man squad. Croft has been one of the stars of this tour and Rob Kearney was in a similar class at Pretoria. Young players like these and Welsh centre Jamie Roberts will have learned invaluable lessons from the trip and will be better for that.
 
Frankly, Ian McGeechan and his coaches have worked minor wonders to make a disparate group of players competitive against a world champion side, around eight of which have been together since 2004. To do that in the space of a few short weeks is near miraculous. As McGeechan said on Saturday night "We haven't had the rub of the green. Had we done so, we could have been leaving here 2-up in the series."
 
They could, but the Lions shouldn't fool themselves. Had the Springboks not been so poor for much of the time, had they played with the real authority of world champions, the Lions would have been blown out of sight. Courage and bravery, qualities the Lions have had in abundance, are not enough at this level. You need at least six or seven players of the quality of an O'Driscoll. Alas, the Lions have had none apart from the Irishman.
 
Saturday's Test was heavily influenced by the decision of French referee Christophe Berdos not to red card Schalk Burger for attacking the eyes of Luke Fitzgerald. He bottled it because it was the first minute. A braver referee would have imposed the ultimate penalty and that could have altered the whole game and perhaps the series.
 
Ironic, then, that I warned before the tour began the Lions were dicing with danger in insisting on neutral, but inferior, referees for the Test series. That policy came home to haunt them on Saturday.
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Lack of Lions preparation is brutally apparent [Jun. 25th, 2009|11:19 am]
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Cape Town.
 
A horrible air of finality hangs over this Lions tour of South Africa, mirroring the dark storm clouds that have sat over the Western Cape this week.
 
It has long since become apparent that dark forces are gathering to threaten the whole concept of Lions tours. The difficulty in finding time for professional players from the northern hemisphere to commit to a Lions tour of any serious length is just one of them.
 
This is the shortest Lions tour ever undertaken and the lack of preparation is brutally apparent. Even now, with just two matches left, the Tests in Pretoria this Saturday and Johannesburg the following weekend, it is obvious that the Lions coaching staff are still finding out about players by putting together different combinations.
 
Yet one Test has been lost, the last two are nigh. The schedule is proving simply impossible for the Lions to make any serious impact in the series.
 
Read more...Collapse )
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Drawing conclusions about the poverty of northern hemisphere rugby [Jun. 24th, 2009|09:12 pm]
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The limitations of options available to the Lions for Saturday’s 2nd Test in Pretoria were again exposed with brutal clarity last night.

 

Another poor display by the midweek team confirmed that Lions coach Ian McGeechan has few real alternatives to last weekend’s beaten Test team in Durban.

 

Very few members of the Lions team which could only manage a scrambled 13-13 draw with the Emerging Springboks at a cold, windy Newlands last night made a convincing case for a Test place.

 

True, conditions were dreadful with heavy, squally showers soaking the ground. But the Lions had enough possession to control two games yet never did anything much with it. They made numerous mistakes, looked plodding and predictable and could not shake off the courageous Emerging Springboks.

 

Their last minute try, from replacement wing Danwel Demas, was converted magnificently from touch by Willem de Waal to tie the scores and put a major dent in the Lions morale as they head for Loftus and their must win Test.

 

McGeechan will have been desperately disappointed that no-one really managed to rise above the general scramble and assert any authority. Skipper Ronan O’Gara was pulled off five minutes into the second half which suggested he may be in line for a starting place in Saturday’s Test. Flanker Martyn Williams worked hard in his usual way but rarely stood out convincingly.

 

The Lions needed the likes of Nathan Hines, Andy Powell and Shane Williams to step up to the challenge but they barely managed anything above the mediocre. Once again, there was little cohesion or penetration to the Lions game and too much of their ball was hopelessly slow, giving them few chances of making decisive breaks. Even when they did, they could not finish, Keith Earls’ first half try excepted.

 

Scrum half Harry Ellis, who might have been playing for a Test place, was gritty and determined but little better than ordinary and took far too long to clear the ball.

 

The atmosphere of a Test match will surely energise these Lions. But, as in Durban, it seems likely that so much will fall on the shoulders of centres Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts. If the Springboks can contain that duo, the Lions seem to have little else of real quality in their locker.

 

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers will have been greatly encouraged by the evidence of this final Lions midweek game. As before, he will have spied a weakness in finishing power and an inability to play the game at a pace demanded by professional rugby. Most of the Lions play last night revolved around driving off rucks and mauls and trying to out muscle their opponents. We know that is not good enough to overcome the powerful Springboks but these Lions do not appear to have much else available as a ‘go to’ tactic.

 

Truly, the poverty of rugby in the northern hemisphere is increasingly being exposed on this trip.

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Lions selection was easy - half of them aren't good enough [Jun. 18th, 2009|01:33 pm]
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In the end, for all the talk of 36 players with an equal chance of earning a Test match place, the Lions' selection for the 1st Test against South Africa in Durban on Saturday bore few surprises.
 
There is a reason for that – nowhere near all 36 players ever had the talent to make the Test side. Thus, it became predictable at least two weeks ago what sort of team the Lions would choose to confront the world champions. Truth is, they had few real class alternatives to the players chosen for the starting XV.
 
Alun-Wyn Jones has won the lock berth alongside captain Paul O'Connell and Gethin Jenkins has seen off the challenge of Andrew Sheridan on the loose head side of the front row. Ugo Monye's stirring defensive work in midweek against the Southern Kings clinched his place.
 
Predictably too, Tom Croft wins the blindside flank role for which he was always favourite once the unfortunate Stephen Ferris was forced out of the tour by injury. How Croft can not even have been selected for the original 37-man squad defies belief. That one has to be put down to gross error by the Lions selectors.
 
Inevitably, too, there is a powerful Celtic core to the team – 11 players from Wales and Ireland are the bedrock, with just four Englishmen. There is not a single Scot in the entire matchday squad of 22, grim confirmation that rugby in Scotland is in serious decline. Nathan Hines and Euan Murray started out with Test aspirations but neither came through. I doubt whether, even without Murray's injury in midweek, he was shooting for anything better than a place on the bench. 
 
The class of 2009 is thinly stretched in terms of resources when it comes to genuine world class talent. The acid test, painful yet always appropriate, is how many would be sure to get into a current World XV ? The brutal answer is one, Brian O'Driscoll.
 
Yet having accepted the limitations of these Lions and especially those outside the top 15 – the uneven, unconvincing results against many of the below strength provincial sides in the build-up to this 1st Test has merely underlined that truth – there is now a golden opportunity for some of the chosen 15 to kick on and make their names as genuine world class talents.
 
If this is a team hardly oozing world class, it is undeniably one with a strong bond, a common cause that coach Ian McGeechan and his assistants have worked hard on creating. Now comes the chance for the individuals to make their name.
 
In 1997, you couldn't pretend the Lions began the Test series with a side stuffed full of legends. Martin Johnson was one, Jeremy Guscott another but not that many others came to mind. But on that tour, myriad players – the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Neil Back and Matt Dawson - seized the opportunity to lift their games to another plateau. That triumph took those players all the way on to a World Cup win with England in 2003.
 
Similarly, the likes of Paul Wallace, Jeremy Davidson and Tom Smith played some of the finest rugby of their lives in that 3-match Test series. Their ability to lift their game contributed mightily to the overall success of those Lions.
 
If the 2009 Lions are to have any hope of emulating the success of their 1997 counterparts, a similar number of players must raise their game. The Lions look solid in the front row but I don't buy this theory that Springbok captain John Smit will become putty in Jenkins' hands now that he's switched from hooker to tight head prop. Smit played there earlier in his career and he's squat and solid.
 
Croft will add a valuable line-out option, not just at the back, and the Welsh halves should have played together enough to feel comfortable and confident. Tommy Bowe is in the form of his life on the right wing. And then there's the great O'Driscoll alongside the rapidly improving Jamie Roberts.
 
But whatever the position, this Lions side must look ahead with belief. They must work collectively and aspire to great performances. If they do that, who's to say they won't give the Springboks something to think about?
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The Lions win but fail to convince [Jun. 15th, 2009|08:50 am]
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 James Hook’s soaring penalty goal four minutes from the end saved the Lions in Cape Town. But has even that superb kick saved the Lions tour?

 

From the comparative comfort of an 18-9 lead, these Lions again stuttered and stumbled in a thoroughly unconvincing way. True, the Lions outscored Province by three tries to one. But their continuing tendency to give away constant penalties puts a serious question mark against their ability to live with the Springboks.

 

With time running out and the 1st Test just a week away, you’d  have thought Ian McGeechan’s men would have found another gear at Newlands, moving smoothly onto a level of performance which would have crushed a weakened Western Province challenge.

 

But these Lions continue to look at best modest, at worst pretty ordinary. They never learn at the breakdown, being penalised time and again by Mark Lawrence for elementary offences like handling in the ruck, diving off their feet at the breakdown and going in at the side. How international players can continue committing such absurd, amateurish errors is beyond me.

 

Again, the Lions dominated possession, winning more than 70% for long periods of the game. Yet again all that came to nothing because the Lions badly lacked composure, accuracy and precision in their play.

 

We are surely faced with the stark truth. There may, just, be 15 quality players in this Lions squad and when they are in the same team, the Lions might have a hope in the Test series. But without key performers like Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Roberts,  Mike Phillips, Lee Byrne, Phil Vickery, Tom Croft and Paul O’Connell,  this Lions squad looks desperately thin on real quality.

 

The one player who stood out yesterday was Irish wing Tommy Bowe, who has surely nailed down the Test No. 14 jersey. The Ulsterman scored a superb try, finishing off the Lions best move of the match, and he then made a second try for fellow wing Ugo Monye, with a clever step, punishing run to break the defensive line and a gorgeously soft, well-timed off-load to send Monye clear.

 

That sort of class was notoriously absent from the Lions play for most of the remainder of the game. They were guilty of turning over possession, losing control of the ball and lacking the type of dynamism to be expected of Lions teams. Far, far too often, the lack of pinpoint accuracy in passing meant that players coming onto the ball had to check to take it.

 

This is elementary stuff, the basics that you teach kids. There were some players, lock Nathan Hines and fly half  Stephen Jones among them, who understood the need to offload in the tackle to maintain continuity.  But too many players continued to go to ground, and with their breakdown work again largely unimpressive despite the efforts of Martyn Williams, the Lions suffered as a consequence.

 

Teams hoping to beat the world champions in seven days time surely ought to be able to swat aside with arrogance and complete conviction the challenge of a provincial side missing a host of top players. It has to be a cause for huge concern that these Lions just couldn’t do that.

 

Province fly half William de Waal punished the tourists for their frequent errors by kicking four penalty goals and a drop. He was short with a late drop goal which would almost certainly have snatched a draw.

 

Western Province should be proud of themselves for a hugely creditable effort. But the fact that they kept in touch on the scoreboard chiefly through the Lions technical mistakes ought to alarm the Lions management.

 

The tour moves on, to Port Elizabeth and then Durban for Saturday’s 1st Test.  Frankly, at this stage, the Lions don’t look anywhere near ready for that challenge and nowhere near good enough. But perhaps they can pull a rabbit from the hat this week to turnaround this tour. They certainly need something dramatic.

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