Eddie Jones: Undercooked Springboks are there for taking
Calling the shots
Saturday 20 June 2009
The Lions have made their decisions in selection and there's no changing them.
I'm not convinced of the wisdom of leaving Andrew Sheridan, the strongest loose-head scrummager in the party, out of the Test squad – at the very least, I thought he might have been on the bench, primed to have a real go at the Springbok captain John Smit on the basis that it's always good to give the opposition captain all the personal trouble he can handle. But Ian McGeechan has opted for mobility and work-rate, and there's a logic to his thinking.
Now is the time for the head coach and his staff to back off. In fact, they should have started their retreat pretty soon after the team announcement and the subsequent training session. I know there's a lot of ceremonial stuff attached to the Lions, with former players handing out shirts and making grand addresses, but the nearer it gets to kick-off, the more the onus is on the captain and his senior colleagues to set the tone. It's a difficult thing to get right, but it has to come from within the squad. If the players leave it to the coaches to create the right mood, they're not in the right mental place to win a big game of rugby.
This will be a big test of Paul O'Connell's qualities as a leader. He has done his fair share of captaincy with Munster, but his experience at international level is limited. Is he up to the task? The Lions' mindset in the opening exchanges will tell us a good deal. With the all the hype flying around, it is easy for a team to become over-emotional in the dressing room and then fall flat when the contest begins. There has to be a mix of fire and water: some rousing words at the right time to get the juices flowing, then a period of calm reflection, then perhaps a little more heat if the temperature isn't quite right. Some players will need encouragement, some will need to be left well alone. At moments like this, there is a hell of a lot for a captain to think about.
O'Connell must ensure that his players don't start the game in too tense a frame of mind. To absorb the kind of pressure a pumped-up Springbok side will attempt to inflict on them, they'll have to be cool, calm and collected. The last thing the Lions need is to be caught up in the chaos and mayhem of it all. Clarity is everything. If the Lions can keep their wits about them and stay in command of time and space amid the fury and physicality, they will go some way towards winning the game.
And I can just about see them winning it, although the contest will be extremely tight. In my view, the South Africans are the stronger side on paper. The core of the World Cup-winning side of 2007 is still there – seven of today's team started the final, although Smit, a very fine hooker, is now playing out of position at prop – and having worked with them during that tournament, I know how strong their focus can be when the big prizes are available. They really are a very single-minded bunch, and in the likes of Fourie du Preez, and Victor Matfield they have individuals of the highest calibre.
But there is a feeling outside the Springbok camp – and, I would venture to suggest, inside it – that a six-month break from international competition has left them underdone, especially as they have played only a single, low-level, barely relevant warm-up game in Namibia. They could be vulnerable in the first 20 minutes. A Test match cannot be won in the opening quarter, but it can be lost there.
It seems that the Lions have worked out how they intend to play, which is not always the case with touring teams. I think they'll move the ball early from outside-half through Stephen Jones, who is tough enough physically to take it to the line and ask questions of the Springbok defence, and I expect the wings, Tommy Bowe and Ugo Monye, to get through a lot of work.
If there is one thing that concerns me, it is the absence of Martyn Williams from the back row. If the Lions are looking to move the Boks around at speed, they would surely benefit from Williams's skill as a link player. But as I said, the time for selection is over. The Lions have made their choices. Now is the time to justify them, because this is their best chance of victory.
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