Gatland blasts 'boring' Boks as Lions battle to stay alive

McGeechan's assistant fires broadside on eve of crucial second Test

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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
The plant ‘Nepenthes zygon’ was donated to Kew in 2004
This artist impression shows a modern-day Atlantis
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer snapped celebrities for 40 years - but it wasn’t all fun and games
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital