Mallett predicts 'athletic' Boks will maul Lions

The former Springboks coach Nick Mallett has predicted a series defeat for Ian McGeechan's British and Irish Lions when their tour of South Africa starts at the end of this month. "You'll lose by 2-1... if you're lucky ," he says, comparing the strengths of the current world champions with the South Africa sides beaten by the Lions in 1974 and 1997.

"I just think they'll find it tough, really, really tough," said Mallett, who is now in charge of Italy. "The ball-handling and running ability of the South African tight forwards is almost unmatched. Guys like the Sharks prop 'The Beast' Tendai Mtawarira, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis and Pierre Spies, these guys are quick and can really pass a ball.

"They're not going to ground with the ball. If they do, they're offloading as they fall to create momentum. They love offloading in the tackle. If South Africa play in the style of the Bulls and the Sharks, which I think they will do, then the Lions are going to have to match athleticism with athleticism and that won't be easy. A guy like [the lock] Simon Shaw is very strong in tight, close play. He's a big, solid forward, very effective at close range. But I am not sure he can pop up at outside centre and throw spin passes. Will he do that?"

Fighting fire with fire was what underpinned the 1974 Lions tour of South Africa and, to a lesser extent, the 1997 trip. This year's Lions coach, McGeechan, was involved in both those tours, as a centre in '74 and as coach in '97.

But South African rugby is a very different animal today. In the past, they sometimes struggled to handle the Lions' physicality, but much of the core of South Africa's current side has been together since 2004, when they last won the Tri-Nations. Under Jake White, the predecessor of the current head coach, Peter de Villiers, they forged a formidable understanding to go on and win the 2007 World Cup.

Mallett says this year will see a physical crunch all through the tour. "This will be a very confrontational series. I don't think it's going to be a very high-scoring contest. South Africa are so good at playing off the opposition's mistakes. They will play a percentage game, play for territory just like the Bulls and Sharks do in the Super 14. The Lions have chosen players for that sort of style as well, big players up front such as Paul O'Connell and Stephen Ferris, with two kicking fly-halves in Ronan O'Gara and Stephen Jones and big centres who can take the ball up and provide a target. But I don't think northern-hemisphere rugby is as physical and attritional as southern-hemisphere rugby.

"The Lions will find it is a big step up in terms of physicality, especially at all the contact areas like counter-rucking and clean-out. The rugby played in the southern hemisphere in those areas of the game is much harder and quicker than the guys are used to in the northern hemisphere.

"You only have to watch Super 14 to see how fast and hard people are and how athletic. The Lions might find they're struggling to cope with all that."

Mallett says he senses a real determination in South Africa, and a taste for revenge. "There is a massive focus on this series among the South Africans. The people are very, very excited about seeing the Lions again. They've waited 12 years for this moment.

"The 1974 Lions left a huge mark on South Africa [they won the Test series 3-0 with one draw] and as for 1997, the public and players think the Lions were lucky to win that series. The feeling is, the Lions sneaked a win and South Africa need to repay that this time. They are definitely not going to take this tour casually."

Another major factor in South Africa's favour is that the Lions must play two of the three Tests at altitude. "I can see the Lions maybe winning the first Test [at sea level in Durban]," said Mallett, "but at altitude in Pretoria and Johannesburg I think the Springboks will have enough to beat them."

However, the Italy coach might just have been displaying his usual diplomatic streak.