- 30 Jul 21
Since the Lions 22-17 comeback victory against South Africa in the first test last Saturday, the Springboks have increasingly looked in panic mode. With Rassie Erasmus stirring up social media vitriol and his role being openly called into question by disgruntled 'Boks fans, South Africa must scale a sporting Everest to beat the Lions.
Last Saturday’s test clash between the British and Irish Lions and South Africa was a humdinger. However, impressive as the Lions were in many respects, as they wrestled their way to a 22-17 comeback victory over the ‘Boks, the overall performance posed more questions than answers. Answering those questions effectively, just seven days later, is the daunting challenge facing the 'Boks.
Eerasmus and his "sideshow" has taken over the narrative for this tie after his bizarre hour long chastising of last Saturday's refereeing. It's hard to know if Rassie is losing the rag, or if it's another very clever, calculated move by World Rugby's best paid waterboy (and influencer). Nevertheless, all that counts is what happens on the field.
It was a topsy turvy encounter, which hardly offered a reliable measure of which is the better side. The Springboks dominated the first half – in part at least because the Lions gave away silly penalties and made mistakes. The Lions controlled the second half, as the ‘Boks’ lack of game-time and truncated preparation began to show.
The joust this coming Saturday will be a different matter. It should give a far more calibrated indication of which is the better side. However, the advantage seems to be firmly with the Lions, both on and off the pitch.
Jacques Nienaber's Springboks have to turn the tide and level the test series. Right now, that looks like a monumental ask of the hosts.
Level Playing Field
The South African’s have been stripped of all the advantages usually falling to the home team on a Lions tour of this nature.
Lions teams of old tended to reach the test series against South Africa with a squad that was held together with sticking plaster and late inclusions, after the provincial South African teams had inflicted damage on as many key men as they could. The 1968 and 1980 tours are testament to the extent to which attrition took its toll.
Having pieced together a team that resembled a Frankenstinian monster in its construction, the Lions faced endless cries of “Bokke Bokke!” from a passionate and hostile South African crowd beneath the scorching sub-equatorial sun.
One view is that the Lions project is as much about the history and drama as it is about winning. They are supposed to face a mountain of challenges, including the difficulty of adjusting to the brutal heat. The idea seems to be that it is the odds stacked against them that make them worth shouting for.
Whether you buy that or not, this year is different: finally, the odds are in their favour.
The fans aren’t in the stadium to act as 16th man for the 'Boks; the Lions won’t have to play at altitude; and the ‘Boks are quite possibly undercooked physically.
The fans not being present is huge. The Springboks thrive off of the emotion of the game and, without this, the motivation to get up to the level of physicality we expect is diminished.
In normal times, Lukhanyo Am’s massive hit on Elliot Daly last week would have brought the house down. Instead, the only sound was a sickening thud from the collision echoing around the empty grounds. It is at times like this that the fire in the belly goes out.
The three tests being moved to sea level is a blow for the hosts. With modern training, the physical difference might have been marginal at best. But the psychological effect would be difficult for the Lions to conquer. You sense that the Lions will almost feel at home in Cape Town for the second test. That, surely, is not how it was meant to be?
The big one is the lack of preparation time for the hosts.
Springboks captain Siya Kolisi denied - or rather refused to admit – that Covid and a lack of game time had impacted the ‘Boks, but of course it has. The world champions were huffing and puffing like old lags in that second half, with their normally game-changing replacements actually causing the momentum to swing the other way.
That said, the ‘Boks are aiming to accelerate with concentrated ferocity towards their peak for the second test. All of the talk of the ‘Boks being underdone, underprepared and overrated will fuel a desire to prove themselves afresh on Saturday. I expect them to be quicker, sharper and more precise as they battle to gain the upper-hand.
A Tale of Two XV’s.
Both sides have made three changes from the first fifteens which started last week's clash.
The Lions have brought in Mako Vunipola at loose-head, Ireland's Conor Murray at scrum-half and Chris Harris at outside-centre. Rory Sutherland, Ali Price and Elliot Daly have have all dropped to the bench.
The ‘Boks meanwhile have named Steven Kitshoff at loose-head in place of the injured Ox Nché. Frans Malherbe replaces Trevor Nyakane, who now switches to loose-head cover, and Jasper Wiese gets his first start for the ‘Boks at number 8 as Kwagga Smith drops to the bench.
Vunipola had a huge impact when he came on in the first test. He helped steady the scrum where Sutherland had struggled. Ali Price was very good last week but his style of play might not suit this week's opening exchanges, during which the ‘Boks will look to suffocate the Lions.
You can't escape the feeling that the Lions have been set up to defend against a backlash – a spirit that is typified by the selection of Conor Murray. Lions coach Warren Gatland is expecting an ultra tight opening 30 minutes in the second test. The Munster man helped see out the game last weekend and, in the same vein, his focus will surely be on keeping the ship steady.
The theory, therefore, is that Conor Murray’s steady and assured hand will bring some much-needed calm to a maelstrom of South African aggression, and ensure that not too much damage is shipped in those ferocious early exchanges.
Let's hope that's the way it plays out.
Meanwhile, Chris Harris replaces Elliot Daly, who struggled last week, at outside centre, as Daly drops into the number 23 shirt. A bit of a gamble is being taken here by Gats. Harris and Henshaw have played an astonishing 0 – that's right, nought! – minutes together on tour.
On the flip side, the are both very intelligent rugby players. Harris was good against South Africa A, and has an excellent defensive game which could prove crucial. They might just work together.
The Lions will have a few bombs to defuse in the opening half, and this segment of the game could prove the winning and losing of the contest. If they can stay in the fight for the first-half, they have some strong players on the bench who can steer the ship towards victory.
The Springboks’ changes are mainly injury-forced, but it is interesting that they have reverted back to the 6-2 split on the bench, with Elton Jantjies dropping out of the match-day squad to be replaced by Marco Van Staden. Kwagga Smith also provides back row coverage.
Jasper Wiese at number 8 is the most intriguing inclusion by Jacques Nienaber and co. The Leicester Tigers man has been trampling over opposition in the Premiership and will offer a significant amount of ballast from the back of the scrum, and around the park alike.
Our Irish Lions.
- Tadhg Furlong struggled with the scrum in the opening acts of test 1 but grew into the game, especially when Mako Vunipola came on and shored up the loose-head side. The Wexford man will need a massive game, both at set-pieces and in general play, to give the Lions a good platform against the ‘Boks.
- Jack Conan earns himself the starting berth at number 8 for the second week, after an assured performance last time out. The Wicklow man may be pivotal in giving the Lions some go-forward with his footwork. Partnered with Lawes and Curry in the back-row, the loose-forward battle will be critical to ensuring the Lions get clean ball and disrupt the South African attack.
- Conor Murray returns to the starting line-up after his appearance off the bench in last week’s tie. The Limerick native will need to have his kicking game on point in order to nullify much of the ‘Boks’ attacking threat, especially from line-outs. Having played many crunch ties for Ireland and the Lions in the past, he should be able to handle the pressure, which the ‘Boks will inevitably try to heap on him and his colleagues.
- Robbie Henshaw was probably not at his best in last week’s fixture, but the Athlone man still has plenty to offer. With his first Lions test cap under his belt, he can look to improve with confidence. His aim will be to wreak havoc in the ‘Boks’ defence and to attack with Chris Harris alongside him. This is a potentially exciting partnership. They just have to make it so.
- Tadhg Beirne retains his spot on the bench, with Courtney Lawes leaving no room for the Kildare man after his excellent performance last Saturday. Rest assured that the ‘Boks will have Lawes’ name tattooed onto their shoulders and they will merrily target the English behemoth. Tadhg Beirne may find himself involved earlier than expected on this occasion, if the world champions can find a way to nullify Lawes.
Springboks Go All In.
So here's the crux. The Lions will be striving to play with a kind of measured caution; in contrast, the ‘Boks have to steamroll into this game. The margin for error is nil.
Half-way through the most recent World Cup cycle, South Africa had suffered first-ever defeats to Italy and Argentina. They also suffered their worst ever defeat at the hands of the All Blacks in a 57-0 drubbing. In the World Cup itself, they lost their opening pool game against the All Blacks.
And yet, they emerged as World champions. They've been down before – and bounced back up again.
One way of viewing it is that South Africa are a dangerous side when they have their backs against the wall. They have been left with a lot to do following their loss in the opening game. Covid disruptions, lack of game-time and a stripping of their home advantages has left the Springboks bare-boned – but hungry for the challenge ahead.
Taking all of that into account, the Lions may face the most dangerous Springboks team imaginable. Then again, it is not inconceivable that the series will have been won by Saturday night...