O'Connell shoulders weight of history
Lions captain and his Springbok counterpart know that immortality or ignominy awaits
Sunday 24 May 2009
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.
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