Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, the towering lock forwards who have become the driving force in the South African World Cup-winning pack, brushed off suggestions yesterday that they will be dominated by British and Irish Lions captain Paul O'Connell in the upcoming Test series.
At a news conference ahead of the first Springboks training session, they were asked to react to comments by 1974 Lions captain Willie John McBride that second-row forward O'Connell would "boss" Matfield around in the scrums, lineouts, rucks and mauls.
While not exactly laughing off the reported comments of McBride, the two South African locks said that the proof of who would dominate whom would be found on the field in the three-test series, starting here in Durban on 20 June.
"He's a great player, Paul," said Matfield, a veteran of 80 Springboks appearances. "He's their captain and I see in the papers this week he had a lot to say to the South African locks when Bakkies and myself didn't play. We will have to see if he has a lot to say to us as well. It's going to be a good battle but we will only know after the three Tests who's bossing who around."
Botha said that McBride's pre-Test bravado would only motivate him even more. "Boss around, when you said those words, that's my game," he said. "Definitely it's going to be a big challenge who's going to be the [Lions lock forward] combination with O'Connell. He's a good leader and a good player as well so to measure ourselves against two of the best locks in the world it's just a new challenge for me and Victor.
"We're not finished yet. We are preparing ourselves to go higher and higher. It's a brand new challenge for us and it's a big one and we are going to grab it with both hands."
The seasoned Bulls second-row pair have become a formidable duo in a Springbok pack. Now they have a new challenge in the form of the Lions, even though they have faced their opponents as individuals with their clubs or playing against Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland, who make up the Lions squad.
As Lions captain, O'Connell seems certain to play in the Test series and the question is who plays alongside him in the second row. Alun-Wyn Jones of Wales, Ireland's Donncha O'Callaghan, Nathan Hines of Scotland and England's Simon Shaw are the alternatives. "It's a very good Lions pack and back line so we will watch tonight at the game and see what comes out," Botha said in reference to the Lions' fourth tour game against the Sharks last night here.
He said he was 17 when the Lions last toured in 1997 and upset the world champion Springboks 2-1. "The results from '97 are a big motivation for us," he said. "We know that to be running out against the British Lions is a big contest for us. We never underestimate the squad and we will go out and do whatever worked for us the last couple of years and just give it all. We will go onto the field as a family and play 100 per cent to our potential."
Botha said that beating the Lions was not far behind winning the World Cup and many of the Springboks stars who won that tournament two years ago had been driven on by the thought of the side coming to South Africa.
"Some guys say the World Cup is enough but that's why I see a lot of difference in this squad," he said. "Each day we get together in training we're just pushing each other to new limits. After the World Cup the guys knew that the British and Irish Lions would come across to South Africa so it's a big challenge for us."
Meanwhile, The Rugby Football Union's investigation into allegations surrounding England flanker Michael Lipman and two of his former Bath team-mates has been extended into next week.
Twickenham's disciplinary manager Bruce Reece-Russel launched his inquiry after Bath accused Lipman, Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins of failing to take drug tests on three occasions following an end-of-season celebration in London. All three players vehemently denied refusing to provide a sample and terminated their contracts on 1 June, immediately before they were due to appear before a Bath disciplinary hearing.
The RFU are investigating the matter before deciding whether the players have a case to answer under Rule 5.12 – conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game.
Reece-Russel had initially planned to reveal his findings on Monday but he has not been able to complete all the interviews required to ensure the investigation is "exhaustive and thorough".
The RFU confirmed yesterday that Reece-Russel's team had reviewed all of the documentation supplied, as requested, by Bath and had spoken with witnesses from the club's management and playing staff.
The process has been delayed because a number of key witness have been away on holiday but the RFU will conduct the outstanding interviews this week. Reece-Russel expects to be in a position to provide an update next Wednesday, 17 June.
Halfpenny the latest to pull out of tour
It is a mere four days since Dr James Robson, the British and Irish Lions' senior medic, proclaimed his delight – not to mention astonishment – at the lack of injury trauma affecting the tourists since their arrival in South Africa. Talk about creating a hostage to fortune. The Lions lost another player yesterday in the diminutive shape of Leigh Halfpenny, the goal-kicking wing from Cardiff Blues, whose dodgy thigh muscle flared up after a training session and ruled him out of the rest of the trip.
His misery followed hard on the heels of that suffered by the Ulster flanker Stephen Ferris, who felt his knee ligaments go "twang" on Monday and had his worst fears confirmed after a scan. While the Lions management summoned Ryan Jones, the Wales captain, to fill the gap left by Ferris, they have decided against replacing Halfpenny.
The Welshman, at 20 the youngest player in the party, missed the first eight days of business in South Africa because of the same thigh trouble. He arrived last week, played a full game against the Free State Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, but then suffered a relapse while practising his kicking at the same training session that accounted for Ferris. No new short-stay records have been set – Stuart Lane, the Welsh flanker, lasted only a minute of the opening game in 1980 before leaving the tour on a stretcher – but even so, Halfpenny's stay was painfully brief. "This must be particularly frustrating for a young man embarking on his rugby career," said Gerald Davies, the Lions manager.
These departures mean that 31 of the original 37-strong party are still going concerns. Four players – Tomas O'Leary, Tom Shanklin, Jerry Flannery and Alan Quinlan – failed to board the plane because of injury or suspension.
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