O'Connell shoulders weight of history

Lions captain and his Springbok counterpart know that immortality or ignominy awaits

Paul O'Connell and his British and Irish Lions will hit Johannesburg tomorrow at dawn. A few hours later, John Smit will pass through on his way to join the Springbok squad in Pretoria before Friday's warm-up match in Namibia. Two captains from different hemispheres on common ground; each of them well aware of the weight of Lions history and the crushing effect it has on the losers.

When O'Connell squeezed his large frame into an armchair at the Lions' hotel, he described the fairly disastrous tour of New Zealand in 2005, in which he had a prominent role, as "not doing the history and tradition of the jersey proud as we should have done". The universally accepted way to do it proud is to win. The Lions' victors of '74 and '97 in South Africa are forever, er, lionised, while the many losing tours are all but ignored. It was true again at a classy farewell dinner at London's Natural History Museum last Wednesday, and throughout the 2009 tour literature.

The Munster lock insisted that it won't be the altitude at five matches, including the Second and Third Tests, which gets his men, and the squad have been told the height above sea level at which they will be playing is not significant, though it has been catered for in training.

"I found it OK with Ireland in Bloemfontein in 2004," said O'Connell, who stands tall at 6ft 6in but is not one for having his head in the clouds. More telling, he said, is the recent ditching of some of the experimental law variations. The maul is back, and that and the numbering-up in line-outs may rein in some of the Boks' inventive systems. The South Africans already knew they would have to adjust to the absence of the free-kick sanctions they have been used to in the Super 14 and Tri-Nations. Both sides must make further adaptations, and quickly.

"Look at the experience the Lions had on that 1997 tour," O'Connell said. "They had guys who were able to process information and were able to cut out a lot of information that isn't needed." He has talked to Martin Johnson and Keith Wood, the captain and hooker 12 years ago, for a few tips.

Smit knows the 1997 Boks wrapped the series up in a green-and-gold bow and handed it over, through coaching blunders and wretched goal-kicking. He was there, as a 19-year-old who had 15 minutes for Natal in a 42-12 defeat by the Lions in Durban. The man he replaced, Ollie le Roux, had mangled Rob Howley's shoulder; Howley returns now as the Lions' backs coach. It's a small world.

"It was a peculiar time [in 1997] for South African rugby," Smit told the British & Irish Lions Official Magazine. "They were reigning world champions but the team were in between coaches and there was possibly a bit of disruption. Whatever the reasons were for defeat, the Lions were motivated to win games and they did. They did the basics well and stuck together and history will tell you that the best team won."

Percy Montgomery, Andre Joubert and Henry Honiball missed six goal kicks between them in the second Test in Durban, when the Lions won 18-15 despite the Boks scoring three tries to nil. Montgomery did a lot better in the 2007 World Cup and South Africa won it. Smit was the hooker then. Now he is a bulked-up tighthead prop alongside the hooker Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai "The Beast" Mtawarira. The Sharks' failure to qualify for the Super 14 play-offs freed this front row to face a Namibian Invitational XV in Windhoek on Friday, but the Bulls' star men – Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana, Pierre Spies and Fourie du Preez – have the Super 14 final in Pretoria on Saturday.

The Springboks will have had no Test between last November and their meeting with the Lions in Durban on 20 June. In 1974 and 1997 the South Africans were undone by defeats in the early Tests and the current head coach, Peter de Villiers, has just the flaky public image possessed by Carel du Plessis in '97. Montgomery is now the kicking coach; full-back and fly-half are problem positions.

"I won't mention names because I don't think it will be individuals that win this Test series," said Smit. "It will be the team that can gel the quickest in the limited amount of time."

When Smit the teenager did battle with the Lions, he politely declined to swap jerseys with Jason Leonard, but Leonard handed his over nonetheless. The history and the niceties continue to be observed, but what counts above all else is victory.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'