The phoney war is almost over. When the Lions meet the Springboks in the first Test a week today, there will be a quantum leap in intensity.
Nothing the tourists have experienced since arriving in South Africa will bear the slightest resemblance to the magnitude of rugby or the scale of occasion they can expect on their return to Durban. This is always the case on a modern Lions tour, but the difference will be more dramatic than ever, thanks to a strangely muted programme of provincial fixtures.
Of course, when the itinerary was being planned, no one imagined the opening game in Rustenburg would clash with a Super 14 final down the road in Pretoria. There were also good local reasons for the relatively small crowd in Johannesburg, where the Ellis Park stadium is situated in a difficult part of town and transport is hard to find after dark. But gates were also a little disappointing in Bloemfontein last Saturday and in Durban on Wednesday night, and that must be down to the rocketing cost of tickets. English prices are being charged for these matches, and in tough economic times people tend to react negatively to a 150 per cent hike in face value.
Especially when the provincial teams are shorn of their box-office talent. I can understand the Springboks holding back those players pencilled in to start the first Test. But the Boks have 28 in camp at the moment, and I can't help feeling that the release of a dozen or so international-class operators back to the provinces would have transformed the quality of the action.
As it is, Ian McGeechan must base his decisions on the evidence available. I'd say we saw around 80 per cent of his Test side against the Sharks on Wednesday. The areas still under examination are the wings and the balance in the back five of the scrum, where selection will depend on how the coaches address some very obvious problems at the tackle area.
I also think there is a call to be made at loose-head prop, where the choice rests between an out-and-out heavyweight scrummager in Andrew Sheridan and a front-rower of the "third flanker" variety in Gethin Jenkins. I've said before that if the Springboks are serious about playing John Smit, their captain, at prop rather than hooker, they are presenting the Lions with a point of attack. I understand Jenkins' value around the field – certainly, his presence will boost the team's effectiveness in the loose – but a big psychological blow can be struck by getting after the opposing skipper and making his life difficult.
There are key individuals among the South Africans: the lock Victor Matfield and the scrum-half Fourie du Preez are two. Smit is very definitely another. Paul O'Connell will attack Matfield at the line-out; Mike Phillips will attempt to knock Du Preez out of his stride at the base of the scrum and around the fringes. On this basis there is a case for picking Sheridan against the Springboks' undisputed leader.
So much will depend on what the Lions attempt to do at the breakdown. They have problems there, for sure: David Wallace is not the greatest scavenger in the world, Martyn Williams is a half-and-half kind of open-side flanker and Tom Croft is not an on-the-ball player at all. Whoever plays, he won't find himself up against Heinrich Brussow, who made such a spectacular impact for the Free State Cheetahs last weekend. However, he may well have to get his head around Schalk Burger, who if fit, will play a big part in this series.
The Lions need all the help they can get in the tackle area, which is why I'd pick a hit-everything lock like Nathan Hines or Simon Shaw to play alongside O'Connell. When I was working with the Wallabies, we had David Giffin. He didn't carry a lot of ball, but with John Eales – or, latterly Nathan Sharpe – in the side, that didn't matter. David was the cement between the bricks: he cleaned out rucks, made his tackles, he worked himself into the ground. With no cast-iron ballwinner operating in the back row, the Lions must compensate somewhere. It might be hard on a good, athletic lock like Alun-Wyn Jones, but on a tour like this, needs must.Reuse content