- Lifestyle & Sports
- 08 Jul 21
When the decision was made to proceed with the Lions tour of South Africa, the hope was that Covid might be kept at bay. Now, Saturday’s game against Vodacom Bulls is under threat as a result of Covid. So, if it does go ahead, what are the Lions chances in the first test?
What a debacle. After months of will it won’t it, could it should it, the Lions tour proceeded. Now, its future seems more uncertain than ever.
The South African camp is a petri dish at the moment. The Bok’s second game against Georgia was cancelled, after the world champions returned eight Covid positive tests. As of today, we are just 16 days out from Test 1 in Cape Town.
Will we make it that far without the tour being postponed indefinitely? That is the $60million question.
It’s not just the Springboks who have their Covid-related issues, either. After a player and a member of staff tested positive yesterday, the touring Lions players were confined to their bedrooms for eight hours, waiting to see if their game against the Cell C Sharks would go ahead. With their 12 close contacts, including 8 players noted, the squad was cut down to skin and bone.
It’s a mess.
Saturday’s game was supposed to be against the Vodacom Bulls (you’ll never guess: they’re riddled too). And so a new opponent has yet to be decided. Thus, we remain in a zone where the past is all that we can talk about with any certainty. I guess it’s been that kind of year…
Are They Invincible?
Where rugby is concerned, the Lions must look to the past to figure out how they might successfully break down the Springboks.
Have a look at the road the Springbok’s took to winning the World Cup. They trounced Japan in the quarters, which many expected due to their supposed superior quality.
But test rugby has become as much about style as pure quality. Japan were nimble, fluid, skilful and very, very small. South Africa’s narrow defence squashed their attack with ease. At the other end, the Springboks’ power game was unstoppable.
In the final, the English tried to match this power game – and were trampled. The ‘Boks splintered the scrum that had nullified the All Blacks, and bullied the pack that up to then was being touted as the most powerful in the tournament.
Or to put it simply, Japan failed because their game played into the ‘Boks’ hands; England failed because they tried to beat them at their game.
Are they invincible? Not necessarily.
In the World Cup, South Africa struggled against Wales and the All Blacks. These games, therefore, are potentially crucial touchstones for the Lions. The All Blacks had the confidence to play their own game, with simple tweaks to exploit holes in the ‘Boks.
And, up to a point at least, it worked. The Springboks struggled to impose their narrow, brutal style on a game that moved so fast out wide. If you re-watch it, you’ll see that Steve Hansen’s men were flinging the ball as wide as they could at every opportunity.
That’s lesson one.
The Welsh, meanwhile, chipped away at the South African’s and ended up giving them their toughest test of the tournament. They matched the ‘Boks without ever getting sucked into their game. With their fitness coach Paul ‘Bobby’ Stridgeon getting them to put in the hard yards, Warren Gatland’s men were well-conditioned to weather the ‘Boks assault. They were equipped to front up, get battered and dish out their own brand of physicality in return.
The learnings for the Lions came around the hour mark, after some abrasive Welsh forwards’ play in the South African 22. Once the penalty was won, they opted for the scrum. The Springbok’ had the edge in this department for the game and they relished the opportunity to turn the screw into Welsh necks. But the scrum was a decoy.
The ball came out quickly as the red scrum crumbled. They spun it out to Josh Adams, who strolled over. The Welsh never shied away from the Bok’s physicality, but they weren’t sucked into a power struggle they would never win either.
Disrupting The Sharks
The Springbok’s have developed their game since then, as demonstrated against the Lelos on July 2nd. They struggled in the opening exchanges, but went on to dominate a game where they showed that they are capable of adding intricacies and nuances to their attacking bulk, with back door passes and less of a reliance on putting boot to ball.
The animal that faces the Lions will have more weapons, but it will remain the same at its core.
Now coaching the Lions, Gatland has referred to how he wants each player to focus on themselves, not the opposition. His team must focus on their own game. And what a game it may be.
The forwards and backs are virtually interchangeable. Forwards with speed and soft hands are favoured over bulkier targets. There are jackal threats across the backline, in some big men like Duhan Van Der Merwe and Bundee Aki. This blurring of the lines between backs and forwards paid dividends for a rejigged Lions team last night.
We saw the value of this skilled pack for DVDM’s third try. Adam Beard, Taulupe Faletau and Maro Itoje were all involved. Itoje did particularly well as he straightened up and fixed the defensive line before spinning the ball to Elliot Daly. With a less skilful pod of forwards that would have been a no-no.
We saw the reverse too. Aki’s try just before the oranges showed how the backs are diversifying to incorporate the meatier aspects of the game. Aki joined the back of a driving maul inside the Sharks 22, before it splintered off, with Cowan Dickie bringing the ball into contact. Aki picked off the base of the ruck and cantered over the bruised Sharks defence.
The Lions’ attack was sparkling last night.
Issues remain for the men in red however. The scrum was shaky at best with both Mako Vunipola and Zander Fagerson struggling. Rory Sutherland and Tadhg Furlong were needed to shore up the set piece. The maul had improved both sides of the ball since the game against the Sigma Lions, during which the British and Irish Lions struggled. However, the lineout was excellent, with the Lions securing all bar one of their own lineouts, and disrupting the Sharks’.
The players and coaching staff will know what needs to be done. It’s not a matter of learning anything new, for players of this calibre. It’s simply about adapting to the fresh faces around them and driving them on. The current signs are very encouraging for the tourists.
A Fantastic Test
For our Irish Lions there was a mix of disappointment and encouragement. Unfortunately, Tadhg Beirne and captain Conor Murray were pulled from the match-day squad due to Covid related issues . But the Irish contingent otherwise fared well. Iain Henderson captained the Lions in a momentous occasion for the Ulster lock. He tackled with power and aggression, whilst showing off his footwork and capable hands in attack.
Bundee Aki barnstormed his way through the game. The Connacht man is staking a claim for a starting spot in the test side, despite initial doubts over his inclusion.
Jack Conan kept himself in the mix with his cameo. He made a crucial hit as the Lions were defending their line late on. Meanwhile, Tadhg Furlong strengthened his claim for a starting spot. My reading of it is that The Jukebox has the starting test shirt nailed to his back after he steadied a struggling scrum in the second half. But Warren Gatland has been known to defy logic in the past, so you can’t be sure.
As for this Saturday’s game, who knows? The Lions are showing signs that they are coming together. However, they need game time to solidify the combinations that were forged mere weeks ago.
The Bulls, should they pass Covid protocols, would be a fantastic test. They are the strongest South African team and will provide a similar challenge to what they will face on July 24th.
If we still have a test series that is. Uncle Gats thinks we will. Let’s hope.