Lions open as support act to Bulls

Tourists' first game takes second billing to Super 14 final in nearby Pretoria

The South Africans, never wholly satisfied with beating opponents unless they also beat them up for good measure, do not always give the British and Irish Lions a free ride at the start of a tour: Robin Thompson's 1955 vintage lost their opening match against Western Transvaal – a result that "severely dented our confidence", the flanker Clem Thomas admitted in his account of the trip – while Arthur Smith's team could only scrape a draw against Griqualand West seven years later. A few Griquas will be on the 2009 Lions' case in three days' time, but no one seriously anticipates a morale-wrecking experience on this occasion.

It will be more strange than threatening. Thanks to the fixture schedulers, who increasingly go out of their way to make life awkward for the paying public, the tour opener in Rustenburg against a Royal XV drawn from three of the lesser highveld provinces clashes with the final of the Super 14 competition, in which the Bulls, who have absolutely nothing "lesser" about them, take on the Waikato Chiefs in neighbouring Pretoria. It would seem spare tickets for the latter contest are much more of a rarity than those for the former.

Even Warren Gatland, the head coach of Wales and one of the Lions' principal strategists here, feels torn. "I'll be cheering like hell for the Chiefs," said the New Zealander, who was born in the Waikato capital of Hamilton, spent many fruitful years playing in the provincial team's front row and was a member of the pack that reduced the Lions to their component parts on a gruesome day in 1993. "It's a big moment for them and I'd love to see them win, although I can think of easier challenges than playing in front of 50,000 Bulls supporters at Loftus Versfeld."

Gatland assured his audience that there was no possibility of him taking a wrong turning off the Rustenburg road and finding himself in Pretoria instead. It is probably as well, for although the Lions are expected to win comfortably on Saturday against a humdrum collection of Griquas, Leopards (originally Western Transvaal) and Pumas (known both as South Eastern Transvaal and Mpumalanga in years gone by), the tough stuff will arrive soon enough. By the time the Lions play the Free State Cheetahs in the third game, followed by the Natal-based Sharks and Western Province, they will need to have a few things sorted.

"One of the mistakes I made bringing Wales to South Africa this time last year was thinking we'd pick up from where we left off in winning the Six Nations Grand Slam," Gatland admitted. "The key thing in coming here is to go back to basics and to work on being strong at the set piece and dynamic at the breakdown. We'll also have to think seriously about our kicking game, especially when we're playing at altitude, where distance really matters. We have kicking outside-halves, and people like Lee Byrne bring a big boot to the full-back position, but we don't have recognised kickers in midfield. It's not an area where we have a huge amount of depth." Where, oh where is Gavin Henson when his people need him?

Happily, there was reassuring news on the injury front. The Lions trained in force, successfully incorporating a Leinster contingent who were still shaking off the after-effects, both orthopaedic and alcoholic, of their Heineken Cup triumph over Leicester in Edinburgh last weekend. Even the stellar centre Brian O'Driscoll did a bit, although his fragile right shoulder prevented him playing a full part in the session. He will certainly not be involved in Rustenburg, and may not appear until the Free State game in Bloemfontein on Saturday week.

For their part, the Springboks will begin preparations for the three-Test series with a practice match against a Namibian Invitation XV in Windhoek on Friday. The formidable prop Tendai Mtawarira, who glories in the delightful nickname "Beast", joined the squad late after sitting an examination paper. Rumours that he is studying for a doctorate in how to ram the heads of his opponents into their nether regions have not been confirmed by the South African hierarchy.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
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 appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas