Lions open as support act to Bulls

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

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.