Lions Beast Ready to Prowl in SA

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), April 22, 2009 | Go to article overview

Lions Beast Ready to Prowl in SA


Byline: simon roberts

LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO couldn't have put it better if he'd tried when he talked about the Lions as being "like the SAS of international rugby." For that has summed up the 2009 British and Irish Lions squad for the tour to South Africa to an absolute T.

Lions tours are never pretty, but one look at the 37-man squad for the 10-match trip to face the world champions, the Springboks, in their own backyard, tells its own story.

Lions coach Ian McGeechan and his support team are expecting, and want, a brutal confrontation against the Boks.

Every one of the coaches involved - including the Wales trio of Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley - underlined the need for "mental toughness" and "character" as being the pre-requisites for all those lucky enough to be named at a Heathrow hotel yesterday.

They could have added "stubborness" and phrases like "willing to die for the cause" and "prepared to lay their bodies on the line," and they would have summed up this selection.

Words such as skill, finesse and flair were conspicuous by their absence.

The Lions coaches know they have to win the physical battle and undermine the macho culture which South African rugby is based on.

McGeechan, who led the Lions to a 2-1 Test series victory over the Springboks in 1997, knows it held the key to that victory.

If they can take that element away from their hosts, they believe they can give themselves a chance of Test series victory.

The 2009 Lions are clearly about winning a war of attrition.

Nearly all of the 14 Irish, 13

Welsh, eight English and two Scots named in the initial tour party are renowned for their physical edge.

Only the likes of Shane Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Riki Flutey are X-Factor players.

Even Brian O'Driscoll, the man who led the Lions in 2005 and missed out on the captaincy this time around, and has been one of the most talented players in world rugby since the game went professional, has reinvented himself into a "dog of war." The fact that the likes of Welsh duo Ryan Jones, James Hook and English trio Delon Armitage, Tom Croft and Mark Cueto have failed to make the tour party tells its own story.

The London Wasps approach - with Gatland, Edwards, Howley and even McGeechan all part of that winning culture - has clearly won the day.

The 2009 Lions, like Wales in their 2008 Grand Slam campaign, will be told they must earn the right to play before they can reap the rewards and throw the ball around.

This selection, quite understandably, is all about making sure the Lions win the arm-wrestle and do not take a step backwards.

The selection of 14 Irishmen, a post-war record from one country for a Lions tour, underlines that philosophy.

Ireland dogged it out to win their first Grand Slam in 61 years this season. They played successful, not spectacular rugby, and perfected the art of winning ugly.

The fact that Munster captain Paul O'Connell is the Lions captain rams that home even further.

The Wasps and Munster approach to the game is so similar and will clearly be what this Lions tour will be about.

Joe Worsley, the Wasps and England flanker, so often on the outside looking in for his country almost symbolises what the ethos of this tour party will be.

His inclusion was clearly based on his bone-crunching display against Wales at the Millennium Stadium.

Then, his superb defensive work stopped Jamie Roberts, a hefty handful to say the least, in his Six Nations tracks.

Tomas O'Leary, the Ireland and Munster scrum-half, also echoes that.

O'Leary, Mike Phillips and Harry Ellis may not be the most skilful or cerebral No 9s, but they all have aggressive and abrasive streaks to their game.

The one so-called 'bolter' or 'Geech factor pick,' as it is called, was that of Keith Earls, the young Ireland and Munster centre/full-back. …

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