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.

News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballLive! Sanchez makes up for penalty miss to put Arsenal ahead
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
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

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all