There is an awful lot of talk about defence in Lions circles just now, which may depress those who yearn for the mind-stretching rugby played by Barry John and Phil Bennett back in the early 1970s, when the British Isles bestrode the union world. It does not depress Shaun Edwards, though. Edwards loves successful tackles in the way he hates missed ones, and when he chewed the fat ahead of tonight's difficult match with the other Lions featuring on this tour – Andre Pretorius and his Golden ones – he made his views very clear indeed.
"Things went pear-shaped during the first half in Rustenburg," admitted the assistant coach, referring to the soft tries conceded during last weekend's opening contest with a Royal XV who were no better than so-so. "We had the excuse that we hadn't been long at altitude, but even so, I wasn't happy. As defence coach, I take these things personally: during a game, I'm out there with the players, in spirit if not in body. We won't win a series against the Springboks defending as we have been, so it's time for us to get on the money. I'm so driven by this. The other day, a South African asked me what my role was and when I told him, he said 'Good luck, you'll need it.' That motivated me even more. If you can't stand the pressure, don't put yourself up for the job."
Edwards should at least reap some reward from the performance of Ugo Monye this evening, because the England wing's defence in recent weeks has been little short of impregnable. He pulled off one of the tackles of the season during the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham in March and followed it up at club level with some spectacularly effective scrambling in a couple of big Harlequins matches, most notably in the ultra-tight Heineken Cup quarter-final with Leinster, the eventual champions.
Tonight, Monye makes his Lions debut at Ellis Park, where one of his forerunners in the England wing department, John Bentley, scored his famous solo try on the last tour here a dozen years ago. More than 50,000 people have watched footage of that minor miracle on YouTube alone, but when some of Monye's new colleagues bagged themselves a laptop the other night, they found something else to show him: namely, film of him being tipped on his head during a Harlequins-London Irish match last month. "It was nice to relive that moment: I can't thank them enough for finding it," said Monye, whose ironic tone was entirely justified, given that the incident could easily have cost him his place on this trip.
It goes without saying that Monye is seeking a Bentley moment of his own. Apart from anything else, it would lay down the challenge to his rivals for the left-wing spot come Test time: Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney from Ireland, Shane Williams from Wales. "Visualisation is a massive part of the game at this level, and it can't be a bad thing to visualise yourself scoring a try like that," he acknowledged. "But my game is grounded in defence. You can be a passive defender, or you can be really up for it and use it as a tool to hurt your opponents. I take the second approach, and from what I've seen so far, this whole squad has the same attitude. There's no one here who's afraid to tackle."
During the Quins-Leinster match, Monye did as much as anyone and more than most to prevent Brian O'Driscoll crossing the line. Tonight, he plays in the same back division as the stellar Irish centre for the first time. "It's massive for me," he said. "Brian will be a great comforter out there, and of course, he's so good at making things happen. A lot has been said this week about the importance of having players with the x-factor, and no one has more of the x-factor than Brian.
"I can remember watching the Lions Test against the All Blacks four years ago, when he got hurt. It was an awful incident, but I suppose it showed the respect the New Zealanders had for the threat he posed. They wanted him out of the game as quickly as possible."
With Fitzgerald injured and Williams more than a little off his standard in Rustenburg, there is an obvious opportunity for Monye at Ellis Park. "Am I nervous? No. My feeling is one of pure excitement," he said. "Am I ready? Of course. I'd be a fool if I wasn't. The contest for that Test place will be intense, but I'm not daunted at the thought of going up against a player as good as Shane. In fact, I'd say there's a bond between us. Of course there's an element of competition, but when he was picked for the Rustenburg game I wished him good luck, as I will every time he's on the pitch. Now it's my turn. This game is about me and the way I play."
The wing contest became hotter still yesterday when Leigh Halfpenny, perhaps the form strike-runner in the British Isles in recent weeks, made his belated appearance in South Africa. The youngest member of the party spent an extra eight days at home in Cardiff undergoing treatment on his injured thigh.Reuse content