James Lawton: O'Driscoll's explosive Celtic chemistry with Roberts offers hope
The Lions have shown the pace and fluency to seriously embarrass the Boks
Monday 22 June 2009
The worst did not happen – and the best almost did. Sports history will always keep this vast and semi-honourable category of missed opportunity open for a stream of fresh applications, but in the meantime the British and Irish Lions can draw on more encouragement than they could possibly have imagined when the Springboks threatened them with a swift and ignominious journey to oblivion in Durban on Saturday.
How it was that the grimmest scenario – a strangling of Lions self-belief at birth – did not come to pass will now be a matter of fierce debate among the South Africans. Did they indeed remove the boot from the Lions throat in potentially disastrous haste? Inevitably, they will say they did, but most uplifting of all for the Lions is that their best hope as they lined up against world champions on Saturday has survived defeat in the first Test.
No doubt it is a little buffeted but the idea that they have the means to hurt South Africa remains exuberantly alive. Not just with the odd random burst of virtuosity but with systematically applied midfield brilliance, a form of the game which on first inspection had a depth and a range that would challenge the most resolute of defence.
All the Lions have to do to draw a better dividend is produce a little more than the kind of token opposition up front which for half the game made the opposition pack seem not so much an awesomely powerful unit as a major movement of the earth. This may sound impossibly glib, but part of the ambition was achieved when Adam Jones replaced the besieged Phil Vickery at prop and it could well move forward another step with the inclusion of the hulking and perhaps most seriously undervalued lock in the history of English rugby, Simon Shaw.
This will no doubt occupy much of the thinking time of coaches Ian McGeechan, Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Graham Rowntree between now and Saturday's re-match in Pretoria. However, they can agonise in the sure knowledge that if they get it half-right, if they can deliver a little more of the ball to the midfield which outclassed the Boks in the second half, these Lions might still join the company of those of Willie John McBride in 1974 and of Martin Johnson 12 years ago.
The shining reality is that in Jamie Roberts and Brian O'Driscoll the Lions have been gifted the most explosive piece of Welsh-Irish chemistry since Dylan Thomas and Caitlin MacNamara collided in a West End bar.
It reached the point that whenever the ball came into their orbit the world champions were left never very far from a nervous breakdown.
Certainly for many the abiding memory of a match which the Lions came so close to stealing at the end will surely be the outcome of the conference between the Lions' medical staff and a flattened O'Driscoll. As the Lions pushed for a suddenly feasible victory, the idea of the Irishman's absence was unthinkable.
Because of his combative nature and his ability to rip apart any opposition, O'Driscoll has probably taken more shots to the head than the average professional middleweight fighter, but his response is almost invariably to shake away the effect and resume the action.
When it was gently suggested to him that he might feel unable to carry on, after a whiplash blow that was probably no less jolting for appearing entirely innocent, he shook his head once again and delivered what could only be described as a sardonic smile. At that late moment belief in an extraordinary Lions triumph could only be re-doubled – along with the conviction that taking the Lions captaincy away from O'Driscoll after it was so brutally aborted four years ago on a wild night in Christchurch was to replace a sublimely intuitive force in the game with his worthy but rather less inspiring compatriot Paul O'Connell.
Some are now arguing that a more effective second row, despite the convulsion that would no doubt follow the exclusion of the captain, would be formed by Shaw and Alun-Wyn Jones, but one thing at least is certain after Durban. The leadership provided by O'Driscoll will always go beyond the authority of an armband.
In New Zealand his potential to create confidence and momentum was wiped out at the very dawn of the tour. Here, it was asserted massively and we can be sure that in Pretoria he will receive maximum attention.
It is a challenge that he will relish as much as any battle of the past – and will remain a hugely potent factor for the Lions however the South African coach, Peter de Villiers, responds to charges that he was guilty of appalling complacency when hauling off some of his key players in the second half.
What the Lions were able to show is that they have the pace and the fluency to seriously embarrass the South Africans if anything a little more like parity can be achieved at the front – a fact which might well already be enshrined in Saturday's result if Ugo Monye had not twice dithered when destiny made some juicy calls.
As it is, the Lions know where to go to inflict maximum pressure, and it is a certainty that has already led to calls for the injection from the start of arguably the best continuity man in the business, Martyn Williams. There were times in the late going when the arrival of the quick head and soft hands of the Welshman threatened to made a vital difference. What remained undiminished, whoever was on the field, was the fact that when the issue came down to such matters as clean running and superior wit and a belief in a certain way of playing the game, the Lions did not have one reason to hang their heads.
Such an obligation may come in Pretoria if the lessons of Durban are ignored. The most crucial one demands hard decisions at the front of the team. Then, if they prove to be the right ones, there is good reason to believe the rest will look after itself – and rather beautifully.
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