By Martin Gillingham - 20 May 2009
Just half of the Lions squad have played a Test match in South Africa while only two of them know what it feels like to have won one. Of Ian McGeechan’s original 34-man selection, three have already fallen by the wayside – two to injury and the other suspended. And there’s still another weekend of domestic stuff with the finals of the Heineken and Challenge Cups coming up when a couple more key figures could be lost.
All in all, the omens are not good for those rooting for a repeat of the 1997 triumph.
Back then, an inspired selection also avoided the tricky mission of having to go to altitude to win the series. The first two Tests were at the coast – in Cape Town and then Durban – and the Lions won both of them.
This time around, the hosts have got wise and ensured that the only venue likely to replicate typical European conditions has been removed from the schedule, meaning two of the three Tests are on the Highveld.
There’s no Newlands Test in 2009 – admittedly, there is a financial angle to that decision as much as a playing one – to be replaced by Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria which is an archetypal South African venue: hard pitch, hostile Afrikaans-dominated crowd, and at almost 6,000-foot altitude.
In short, the 2009 Lions know they’ll have to win the first Test in the heat and humidity of Durban to stand any chance of claiming the series. Even the fiercest Lions optimist would rule out the prospect of winning back-to-back in Pretoria and Johannesburg .
The success of South African sport is something of a minor miracle. With the exception of the national football team, the feckless Bafana Bafana, sport in the republic continues to thrive despite all the challenges that face a country in transition.
Less than two decades ago, South Africa was on the verge of civil war while, even now 15 years after the country’s first democratic election, the government faces the overwhelming challenges of mass unemployment, a largely uneducated population, rampant crime and AIDS. Up to 20 per cent of South Africans are HIV positive.
When you’re supping a glass of sauvignon blanc in the Constantia valley you may be forgiven for thinking that such problems are a million miles away. But, believe me, South African rugby doesn’t go unaffected.
The Rand ’s weakness as well as ongoing uncertainty about the country’s future play a huge role in the fact that 228 South African professionals are currently contracted to clubs outside the country. Back here, Martin Johnson moans about losing half-a-dozen Englishmen to the French league.
In the 24 hours since I first started penning this blog, English clubs have announced the signing of two recent Springboks - Schalk Brits to Saracens and Brian Mujati who will be playing next season for Northampton . And Heyneke Meyer, the former Leicester coach who returned to South Africa before Christmas, told me before he left that many more will follow.
Yet South Africa, the country that appears to be haemorrhaging talent, is still capable of producing a national rugby team good enough to be world champions and put more than 40 points past England at Twickenham.
The Springboks battered Martin Johnson’s men in November. And they did so against the background of typical disquiet and uncertainty at home. The Springbok emblem is perpetually under threat with the country’s politicians forever taking swipes at the white minority’s once national game with undertones of racism barely beneath the surface. All this in spite of the fact South Africa ’s rugby team is at last genuinely racially representative of the country it represents.
References to ethnicity may make some of you uncomfortable. Yet in the South African context they are relevant and important. They serve to illustrate just how significant the country’s rugby and social achievements have been.
In 1992, South Africa ’s rugby players returned to the international stage with a Test match against the old enemy New Zealand in Johannesburg . There was not a single black man in the Springbok team and few in the public enclosures other than those selling cool drinks and boerewors rolls.
Just 17 years later, black South Africans are fully represented on and off the field and, though some ANC politicians may differ, the once symbol of white sporting supremacy, the Springbok, is now worn with pride by black players.
I recently bought a book called Playing the Enemy which was on the shortlist for the 2008 Sports Book of the year award. It is written by John Carlin and tells the tale of how South Africa ’s journey to their 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph had been a central tool in Nelson Mandela’s vision of building the Rainbow Nation.
Back then, the Springboks had just one black representative – Chester Williams. At one point in the 42-6 defeat of England in November there were more black players on the field in green ‘n gold jereys than white ones.
That is a remark able achievement; comparable with any in modern day sport.
Martin Gillingham represented Great Britain in the 1984 Olympic Games and 1987 World Championships at the 400 metres hurdles. Since retiring from the track he spent 12 years in South Africa where he was a radio talk show presenter and writer for a Sunday newspaper. He returned to the UK in 2003 and can now be heard commentating on athletics for Eurosport as well as rugby for Sky Sports, ITV and Setanta.