There is something about a Test involving the British and Irish Lions that gets the juices flowing, even when the series itself is as dead as Monty Python's parrot.
Phil Vickery, whose previous experience against the Springboks on this trip might have persuaded a lesser man to dig a hole and hide, caught the mood in his mud-on-the-boots West Countryman's style when he said of this afternoon's last hurrah: "I'm looking forward to this match more than any I've ever played."
It was Vickery's trauma at the scrum in Durban a fortnight ago that set the South Africans on the road to victory, and yesterday, he did not attempt to argue otherwise. "You know you've had a shit game when your mum and your missus send you texts saying they still love you," the prop remarked. "Maybe I was too nervous then. It was certainly a bad day at the office. But a player lives or dies on the strength of his last performance, so to have another opportunity in a Lions shirt is wonderful." In other words, he owes himself, he owes the Lions, and he intends to meet his debts.
The chances of the Lions winning here, of all venues in world rugby, cannot be considered great. Halley's Comet comes around quicker than a Springbok defeat at Ellis Park – "I have a friend who is South African through and through, and even he says he wouldn't want to play here," Vickery said – and with the home side still muttering about the "injustice" of Bakkies Botha's two-week suspension for dangerous charging at a ruck during last weekend's contest in Pretoria, the atmosphere remains highly charged.
"We're hoping and praying that what happened to Bakkies was a case of victimisation and not a sign of where this game is going, because if it wasn't, rugby could be wounded for good," said John Smit, the eloquent Springbok captain. "The players are not happy, and we will stand together to make sure our voice is heard. Sanity did not prevail in respect of Bakkies."
Even without Botha and the flanker Schalk Burger, far more bang to rights on the disciplinary front and thoroughly deserving of his eight-week ban for gouging, the Boks have a majority of their key decision-makers in place. Smit, perhaps the most influential captain in the sport, has the likes of Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and Juan Smith around him, and that weight of know-how will count for a good deal this afternoon, not least because the Lions have lost two of their own senior figures, the centre Brian O'Driscoll and the prop Gethin Jenkins, to injury. With Ugo Monye, another Englishman to be recalled following a difficult afternoon in Durban, sitting out training yesterday with a stiff back, the Lions may be forced into a late change.
They are in surprisingly good heart, however. As Warren Gatland, the forwards coach, said: "This isn't like 2005 in New Zealand. We've earned some respect here and if we front up in this game, we will travel home with that respect intact."Reuse content