The idea of a rugby team consisting of the best players from Britain and Ireland called the Lions coming to South Africa seems odd to us. Surely the South Africans should have first dibs on that name? Africa, after all, is home to the beasts. Instead, humorously, the, er, Lions will head to the southern hemisphere to play the Springboks (aka the South African national team). Now, we’re no zoologists here at Time Out, but surely that’s an unfair contest? Perhaps not, for these Springboks are rugby world champs and have a fearsome reputation.
The Lions, conversely, assemble for just a few weeks every four years to tour and have next to no time to gel as a team. So this is it: the best of British and Irish battle the legendary Springboks. It’s an ancient rivalry – the Lions have been touring since 1888, only arriving on South African shores every 12 years – and a bitter one, with a fair amount of blood and guts being spilled along the way. What’s more, Dubai – with its hordes of Saffas, Brits and Irish ready to build the atmosphere – could be the perfect place to enjoy the games. Below, we speak to two men who know all about this historic encounter and then check out Dubai’s finest venues to take in the spectacle.
British and Irish Lions
A Lion in 1997, Scottish international Gregor Townsend talks tradition Last time the Lions went to South
Africa you were on the squad. How is it going on these tours?
It’s the highlight of any rugby player’s career. You don’t think there’s going to be anything that makes you more proud than playing for your own country. But in these Lions tours, every four years, from the day you get selected all the way through to meeting up with the rest of the team, it’s just a brilliant feeling.
You used to play in South Africa. How was that?
When I went out there we had 40,000 people at our club games. It was the equivalent of playing for Manchester United in football. It’s great to go to a country where rugby is the number-one sport, and that’s something we don’t often get in the UK.
How do you think Ian McGeechan is shaping up as coach?
I know Geech very well from my days with Northampton. He’s the ideal man to coach the Lions. He’s very good at looking at the big picture, at strategy, seeing ways to beat opposition and getting the selection right. And also, very importantly for a team like the Lions, he’s good at bringing a group of people together.
Any predictions? Think the Lions can win?
With the likes of Schalk Burger and Victor Matfield, the South African forwards will be hard to match and very physical. But the Lions have got some real warriors in there, like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. My fear is that if the Lions don’t win that first test [in Durban, at sea level], they’re not going to win the second or the third. They need that first test win momentum and belief, to go up to those two games at altitude.
Werner Swanepoel was a Springbok scrum half when the Lions last came to visit
What’s it like to play on the Lions tour?
As a player it’s unbelievable. We all know the Lions and the tradition that comes with that. I played the last time they came here in 1997 and if I’m honest, I realise more now how big a deal it is to play.
What’s makes the tour so important?
I think it’s the tradition that comes with it, if you think back to the ’74 tour and players like Willie John McBride and Gareth Edwards. These guys in 2009 are just taking up that red jersey and copying that game from way back. The All Blacks in New Zealand are a lot like the Springboks in South Africa. It’s like a religion for them, not just a game.
What are expectations like in South Africa of a home victory right now?
People are positive, and [South African team] The Bulls’ performance played a big part in that after the Super 14 Final [where The Bulls beat New Zealand’s Waikato Chiefs 61-17 to win the southern hemisphere’s most prestigious club competition]. It was great how they won and the core of the Springboks are from The Bulls.
Both players are at Zinc bar during the Tests. Townsend on June 20 and Swanepoel on July 4.
The games and times
South Africa v Lions
5pm, Saturday June 20
Absa Stadium, Durban
9.10pm, Tuesday June 23
Newlands, Cape Town
South Africa v Lions
5pm, Saturday June 27
Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
South Africa v Lions
5pm, Saturday July 4
Coca Cola Park, Johannesburg
Where to show your pride
The Palm Hotel (04 332 2400), Sheikh Zayed Road.
The Irish Village
Aviation Club (04 282 4750), Garhoud.