David Wallace: 'The next 80 minutes are everything'

David Wallace is the battle-hardened flanker who must subdue Schalk Burger today if the tourists are to level the series. He's also the youngest of three siblings to tour with the Lions. Chris Hewett talks to the dyed-in-the-wool Munsterman about family traditions
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The Independent Online

There are some occasions – and the British and Irish Lions' do-or-die meeting with the Springboks today at Loftus Versfeld, perhaps the most intimidating venue in the whole of international rugby, is clearly one of them – when all the skill in the world is not quite enough.

Ask Martyn Williams, the cleverest footballing forward around. For the third tour in succession, the Welshman has done his level best to prove that in the realm of the open-side flanker, art trumps mechanics. For the third time in succession, the people who matter have decided he is wrong.

This afternoon, David Wallace of Limerick will wear the No 7 shirt while Williams of Pontypridd watches from the bench, wondering if he will be granted a few minutes of meaningful activity at the back end of the contest. No one doubts for a second that Wallace knows his way round a rugby field; indeed, some of his performances for Munster in the early stages of the most recent Heineken Cup campaign suggested he was playing as well as any breakaway in Europe. But as he admits himself, he has not won his personal battle with his Welsh rival because he throws better passes or cuts better lines. He is there because of his greater muscularity, his more direct approach to the blood-and-guts part of Test rugby. He is there because he carries the ball more forcefully and delivers his hits with greater intensity.

"Martyn is such a gifted player," Wallace says. "He could happily fit in at outside-half without the opposition noticing. He can do anything on a rugby field, really; he has a rare rugby intelligence and I admire him greatly. How has the rivalry been? Tough but friendly. It's difficult to fall out with Martyn, isn't it? Hell, I've known him for years: we played Under-21s against each other and we've had our battles along the way. But those battles have also been purely about rugby. I can't remember us ever having a scuffle – not even when there's been a Grand Slam at stake. We're slightly different players, but there's been nothing between us on this tour. I'm glad I've been given the shirt, of course, but it could so easily have gone the other way, especially if he hadn't picked up that shoulder injury early in the trip."

The Wallaces have been this way before. Sixteen years ago, the eldest of three rugby-playing brothers, Richard, made five appearances in the red shirt after joining the tour of New Zealand as a replacement, although the first-choice wings, Ieuan Evans and Rory Underwood, blocked his route into the elite side. Four years later, middle brother Paul snuck quietly into the Test team at tight-head prop and helped scrummage the Springboks to defeat in Cape Town and Durban. It was always expected of David that he would maintain the family tradition, and he has met expectations with his performances over the five weeks.

"Richard isn't here, unfortunately: he's just back from honeymoon and doing whatever he's doing back in Ireland," Wallace says of brother No 1, who now earns a crust flying aeroplanes on behalf of CityJet. "Paul is in South Africa with the television boys, doing his analysis and all that. I've seen a bit of him, but I don't go out with him at night. If Paul's enjoying a drink he doesn't go to bed. That's fine, but he has a job that allows him to sleep it off. I'm not quite so lucky in that respect."

From the Lions' perspective, it would be nice to think their latest Wallace might make the kind of impact associated with the previous one. In 1997, Paul Wallace found himself going eyeball to eyeball with Os du Randt, the unusually substantial World Cup-winning Springbok loose-head prop and one of the half-dozen most revered figures in South African sport. When Du Randt ran out of ideas against a man so small by comparison that he might have been a wart on his neck, it suddenly dawned on the home supporters that the tourists were deadly serious about not losing.

Today, the youngest of the Wallaces must mix it with another Springbok superhero: the gung-ho flanker Schalk Burger, a loose forward who plays with such prodigious energy that he has been known to surround opposition packs all on his own. If Wallace thought he had enough on his plate coping with the busy little scavenger Heinrich Brussow in Durban last week, he ain't seen nothing yet.

"Burger is probably a bigger threat as a ball-carrier and I suppose he's more physical in contact," he acknowledges when asked about the differences between today's opponent, a recent recipient of the World Player of the Year accolade, and Brussow, a two-cap Springbok just making his way through the foothills of his international career. "He's been a world-class player for a number of years and he'll bring a different dimension to the South African game, not so much on the floor, where Brussow is so effective, but in terms of hitting around the field. But then, the Springboks have physicality wherever you look, don't they? With Burger there, it'll be the same thing, only more so.

"From our point of view, we have to be more aggressive and more disciplined in dealing with some of the things the Springboks did up front last week. On the evidence of Durban, they appear to have adapted quicker than us to the return of the maul. I don't know why that should be the case – the maul was missing from their game under the Experimental Law Variations for the same time it was missing from ours – but it's something we know we have to change.

"If we can address that issue – and we've worked hard on it over the last few days – we can back our fitness and put them under pressure with our phase play. We're at altitude in this game and at some point it will hurt. But we have to believe we're in better condition than they are. We've been playing regularly, whereas they've had just the one Test. Yes, they were successful in that game: I wouldn't say they bullied us early on but they certainly seemed to own the ball for much of the first half, and speaking personally, they stopped me carrying the ball as much as I'd have liked. But we still created chances for ourselves throughout the match and if we can find the same amount of space and stay dangerous, this game could be ours."

Wallace is a 24-carat, dyed-in-the-wool Munsterman. He played his first rugby at Cork Constitution, made his first overseas tour with that club's Under-12 side (they travelled to Wales, where, to the best of his knowledge, he did not play against Martyn Williams), and tasted success for the first time when he played in a Munster schools cup-winning side. The first rugby player to grant him an autograph was the goal-kicking centre Michael Kiernan, who played in Cork for Dolphin RFC and went on to represent the Lions in New Zealand in 1983.

"It's a grand place to play the game," he says. "A lot of people are talking about the atmosphere at Loftus Versfeld and I'm sure it will be quite a day there, but when you've spent as much time as I have at Thomond Park in Limerick, you get used to the big crowds.

"Look, we're under no illusions about the scale of this task, about how hard it will be to get a result here. But it's a one-off, this game; it's a cup final. It doesn't matter what happened last week, and it doesn't matter what happens next week. These next 80 minutes are everything and when I look around at all the experienced players in this team, players who are familiar with the last-chance situation, I believe we have plenty we can draw on.

"I'm not going into the match disappointed in any way by my own performance in Durban. I didn't make many errors, which pleased me, and if I can use that effort as a base from which to move up another level, I'll be competitive. Yes, I'd love to get the ball in my hands more, but to do that, we have to win the ball in the first place. For a lot of the first Test, we did that quite effectively. Unfortunately, the part of the match where we didn't see the ball really cost us."

There are those who say that if the Lions are going to win sufficient possession to send their open-side flanker haring around the pitch flicking cultured little passes off either hand, it would be better if that open-side were Williams rather than Wallace. But this afternoon's game is unlikely to be big on culture. As John Smit, the Springbok captain, said last week: "Both teams will be fighting in Pretoria: one will fight to finish it off, one will fight to survive." Many in Wales might disagree with them, but Ian McGeechan and his back-room staff take the view that under the circumstances, power trumps panache.

Brothers in arms: The Wallace boys

David Wallace is not the first of the Wallace family to achieve the honour of representing the British and Irish Lions – his two elder brothers beat him to the punch:

*Richard Wallace, 41, is the eldest of the famous siblings. Richard made his full Ireland debut against Namibia in 1991, the first of a 29-cap international career during which he scored five tries. The winger still holds the record as the all-time top try-scorer in the Rugby World Cup Sevens. Richard made the step up to the Lions in 1993, featuring in five provincial matches during the tour of New Zealand but was not selected for the Tests. He is now a pilot for the Dublin-based airline CityJet.

*Paul Wallace, 37, was a powerful prop, who earned 46 international caps with Ireland during a career with Blackrock, Saracens and Leinster. After signing for Sarries in 1996 he shone in his first full season and received a call-up to the Lions squad for the tour of South Africa in 1997. Paul started all three Tests in South Africa and was a key figure in the thrilling 2-1 series win. He was forced to retire in 2003 because of an ankle injury sustained two years previously from which he never fully recovered. Now works as a pundit and rugby analyst for Sky Sports.

Numbers game: David Wallace

55 Total points Wallace has scored in Tests for Ireland

25 The percentage of Ireland games where Wallace has been on the winning side in matches against South Africa

2 Number of Heineken Cups he has won with Munster

226 His weight in pounds

271 Number of minutes he has played so far on the Lions tour in all matches

1,124 The altitude in metres he'll need to adapt to in Pretoria today if he's to help the Lions level the series