Familiar foes aim to turn tables on Lions

South Africa's World Cup veterans are hungry to avenge defeat of 1997
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The Independent Online

They should be over it by now, but it is still a prime cause of insomnia. Twelve years ago, the reigning world champions from South Africa decided, for reasons best known to their inexperienced coach Carel du Plessis, to take on the Lions without a goal-kicker worthy of the name. As a result, they lost the series and very nearly forfeited their collective marbles. Never again, came the cry.

The cry continues to be heard. The Springboks, generally considered to be the most confrontational of all rugby teams, are the cream of the crop once again, having lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy for a second time in Paris 18 months ago. Yet many of their finest players – not least the tight forwards John Smit, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield – have kept some powder dry for this tour, which is now far and away the most important thing in their sporting lives. Victory over the British Isles would allow them to retire happy.

Many of the world's finest rugby practitioners are denied a shot at the Lions, who now operate on a 12-year cycle around South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Wayne Shelford never played against them. Neither did Michael Jones or Alan Whetton, Mark Ella or Danie Gerber. It is a once-in-a-career opportunity, and only then if a player's career happens to fit in with the schedule.

In 1997, Ian McGeechan was granted the luxury of a 13-match programme and took full advantage, building a tailor-made Test side that was very different from the one that seemed likely at the start of the trip. This time, the resourceful Scot is nowhere near so blessed. This fixture list contains only 10 matches, six of them before the first Test in Durban on 20 June. What is more, two of the internationals will be played at altitude in Pretoria and Johannesburg, where European teams traditionally find it harder to win. Last time, two of the Tests were at sea level.

Of the Boks who won the World Cup final against England in 2007, a clear majority are still active. These include the wing Bryan Habana, the centres Jacque Fourie and Jean de Villiers, the scrum-half Fourie du Preez and the back-rowers Juan Smith and Schalk Burger. They also have at their disposal the sensational No 8 Pierre Spies, who missed the global tournament with a blood disorder.

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