Ian McGeechan has never lost a second Test with the Lions – not as a player, not as a head coach – and to say the very least, now is not the time for him to start. If the Springboks beat McGeechan's team at Loftus Versfeld this afternoon, the series will be dead with a week to go, just as it was in New Zealand in 2005.
What price the Lions then? Many rugby folk, some of them extremely influential, will be left wondering whether the future of the most celebrated touring team in world sport is already a thing of the past.
If we ignore the misconceived warm-up fixture against Argentina in Cardiff four years ago – and no sensible student of Lions history takes that drawn game seriously, despite its sudden appearance in the official records – the Lions are in danger of reaching their nadir. Their defeats in the last two Tests in Australia in 2001 means they have now lost six on the bounce, for the first time since the 1930s. A seventh straight reverse will break new ground, and very stony ground at that. No pressure, then. At least the Lions will come out fighting at the home of the Blue Bulls today.
McGeechan's principal assistant, Warren Gatland, promised that much in the course of an eve-of-Test address that amounted to the single most inflammatory speech made by a member of the management on this trip. If the South Africans were able to digest Gatland's words without choking and spluttering with anger, they are a far more conciliatory bunch than the likes of Bakkies Botha and Bismarck du Plessis like to let on.
"One of the things that surprised me last week was how little rugby the Boks played," said the former All Black hooker, who has a day job coaching Wales and was hand-picked by McGeechan to prepare the Lions forwards for this series. "We hear a lot about northern hemisphere teams playing 10-man rugby, boring rugby, but we didn't see too much adventure from the South Africans during the Durban Test. How much rugby did they play for their 26 points?
"We were caught short in the early part of the game, then missed opportunities that could have won it for us. The key to this match will be how we perform in the first 30 minutes or so. If we can negate the physical threat they pose from the kick-off – and we certainly won't be taking any backward steps – we're confident we can make our fitness count. We believe we're in the right kind of shape; certainly, we've taken a lot of heart from the last 20 minutes in Durban, when the Boks were the ones out on their feet, the ones with their hands on their knees. It's why they've gone for five forwards on the bench. They're concerned about our conditioning."
Seven days ago, in the sweltering heat of Kings Park, it was the Lions scrum that suffered. This afternoon, in the thin air of altitude at Loftus Versfeld, the likelihood must be that the Boks will go after their opponents' line-out. It makes sense. Those analysts who understand most about the way the South Africans play their rugby on the highveld expect them to kick early and often, thereby increasing the number of line-outs and, by extension, maximising the influence of the brilliant Victor Matfield, by some distance the outstanding middle jumper in world rugby.
Matfield not only presents a daunting challenge in his own area of the line-out, but also cracks opposition codes with unnerving regularity. Paul O'Connell, the Lions captain, will be his direct opponent today, and will have to play the game of his life to stay afloat: after all, Loftus Versfeld is Matfield's home territory.
But the real heat will come on Simon Shaw, making his Lions Test debut at the ripe old age of 35. Shaw knows what it is to be part of a line-out dismantled by the Boks – the World Cup final in 2007 is still fresh in his mind – and if there is a repeat of that England collapse today, next week's final Test in Johannesburg will be rendered irrelevant.
The Lions are rightly convinced that they have the measure of the Boks outside the scrum, and that if they can win their share of quality possession, both from first phase and on the floor, they will stand a decent chance of running them off their feet. This is where the referee, Christophe Berdos of France, comes in. The tourists accept their scrum was turned over in Durban, but they were not wholly happy with the performance of Bryce Lawrence, the official from New Zealand. "We weren't asking for favours," Gatland remarked. "We just felt like saying, 'Come on, give us a break, give us some 50-50 calls'."
Driven by the uncomfortable memory of South Africa's pratfall against the Lions in 1997, when the tourists lost the try-count 9-3 but sneaked the series by kicking the goals that mattered, the Boks could scarcely be more motivated. "We've lived with that result every day for the last 12 years," said John Smit, the captain, who made his Test debut three years later. Veterans of that Springbok side, including the respected skipper Gary Teichmann, have addressed their successors over the last few days, reminding them of their responsibilities to the game in this country. To say this match is being taken seriously would be one of the wilder understatements of our sporting age.
Can the Lions possibly find the best of themselves here, at a stadium widely regarded as the most intimidating anywhere in the rugby world?
They have the skills, for sure, and they have a strategy that works. The last 20 minutes in Durban told us that much. But to prevail, the forwards must subdue a Springbok pack with the scent of history in their nostrils. And hell hath no fury like a pumped-up Springbok pack.
When Lions have bounced back
In the history of Lions tours, on only two occasions have the tourists recovered from losing the first Test to win the series and have never done it against South Africa. In fact in the four occasions they have lost the first Test to the Springboks, they have never won the second.
*1899 – Australia
After a five-week boat trip, the second Lions tour of Australia started equally sluggishly with a 13-3 defeat. Yet after team captain and manager Matthew Mullineux dropped himself, the tourists won 11-0 in the second Test and scraped victory in the third with two tries from Alf Bucher setting up an 11-10 victory.
*1989 – Australia
Head Coach Ian McGeechan was also in charge the last time a touring side turned around a 1-0 deficit in 1989. The first Test was a 30-12 defeat, however a spirited second-half fightback in Brisbane – at the "Battle of Ballymore" – saw the Lions come out 19-12 on top. In Sydney, Gavin Hastings kicked 15 valuable points to see the Lions return home victorious after a tense 19-18 win.Reuse content