- 06 Aug 21
The rugby showdown on Saturday may well define the current South African team – as well as casting the entire Lions project in a fresh light. So which team will find the decisive 1% to drag them over the line. One thing is for sure: there will be no love lost between the Springboks and the Lions. Would we want it any other way? A definitive 'no' is the answer...
There are no more second chances. After the 27-9 mauling South Africa inflicted on the Lions last weekend, we find ourselves facing into a series-deciding third test. It was men against boys last time out, but that was then and this is now. One team must find the edge as they venture into the cauldron.
The Lions and South Africa have both used up their free passes. After Saturday, there will be no do-overs. In many ways, the upcoming joust will define this South African team’s legacy. Are they the greatest team of their generation, or was the World Cup just the product of a good, never-to-be repeated run?
A good team is capable of a great year; a great team is capable of a lasting legacy.
Before the 2019 World Cup, many had summarily ruled the Springboks out of contention. Handré Pollard was considered average by many and Rassie Erasmus’ men, it was said, lacked the skill needed to win a World Cup. This verdict was proven badly wrong, and Siya Kolisi went on to hold the William Webb Ellis Cup aloft in Yokohama. Now, Saturday's game offers them the chance to solidify their position as world conquerors.
On the flip-side, for the Lions, this Saturday is as significant for the brand as it is for the team itself.
Some fans see it as the northern hemisphere’s greatest rugby showpiece. But noteveryone is in agreement. The entire exercise is often called into question and demands for the Lions to be scrapped crop up all the time – but more so than ever after every loss or poor performance.
If the Lions win on Saturday, it should go a long way towards ensuring that the future is secure – at least for now – in what has been a difficult tour from an economic and commercial standpoint.
But to win the game, one team must find an edge.
PLAYING FOR PRIDE.
The Springboks love to make games emotional.
Rassie said that before his team play anyone, they must find a reason to hate them. The ‘Boks find that an emotional edge of that kind delivers that extra yard, energising them to get off the ground that bit quicker. In this modern era of sports science, the physical difference between teams may be minimal, but that extra psychological lever the ‘Boks construct can indeed make the difference.
Rugby is much more than a game for South Africa. It’s what a significant proportion of the people of the Rainbow Nation look to, when the world around them is in turmoil.
In Chasing the Sun, Welshman Aled Walters – who was South Africa’s head of athletic performance for the 2019 World Cup – said that it’s not about rugby, it’s about hope. South African rugby is said to be for everyone, and represents everyone. By way of contrast, in the northern hemisphere rugby has been accused of being associated with elitism in the past.
The ‘Boks will be sure to use every ounce of the added mental fortitude this gives them, coming into Saturday’s clash. But they will be met by something that is itself unique, albeit indefinable: the pride of the Lions and, more particularly, of the 15 men adorned with the badge of the combined forces of Ireland and Great Britain.
Each individual Springbok represents the entire nation; each Lion represents their individual nation. It is a curious difference, and an interesting one,
For the four nations that feed into the Lions, it is a matter of pride to see their players playing for the Lions. When Robbie Henshaw pulls on that famous red jumper, it’s an indication of the talent we have on our shores and makes followers of Leinster stand up with pride. Connacht, Athlone and Buccaneers follow suit.
It will be the same for each Lions player on Saturday evening. Playing for the Lions is the culmination of a family’s sacrifices, a grassroots club's encouragement and a national structure’s professionalism. The individual Lions represent their own home patch. Collectively, they bring the four home nations together.
In this way, at least in theory, the emotional tug of an under 7’s coach’s pride and the gravity of the support of a nation combine to buoy the Lions players with pride. Will this be enough to give them the edge they need to drive over the line?
What – you expect me to answer that? Alright, I'll give it a go them!
The referees performed very well last weekend despite the scathing hour-long analysis, in which Rassie had indilged in advance – and which was aimed at heaping further pressure on them. But where Rassie’s less than subtle approach paid dividends was the stop-start nature of the game.
The ‘Boks want to play slow to exert control whilst the Lions want to play fast to gather momentum. The refereeing last week played into the ‘Boks’ hands. The first half lasted an astonishing hour and twelve minutes altogether, which sapped the Lions momentum, and probably their will to live as well.
It was boring, messy rugby. the Lions looked to be in the driver’s seat after the first half, but the sheer dull grind of it all led to the Springboks running out handy winners.
In fairness, South Africa were excellent at robbing momentum from the tourists at each ruck, scrum time and in the collision contest. The ‘Boks took their time setting up for scrums, counter-rucked with aggression and accuracy, and smashed the Lions behind the gain-line every time. There were no inroads available to the Lions and they began to fall away.
The Springboks conversely built dominance through their incessant disruption of the Lions – to the extent that the Lions spent the second-half dropping from mauls and collapsing under the pressure.
When the Lions get quick ball, they trouble the Springboks. But if the Springboks force them to dawdle on the ball before they get smashed, it's a recipe for disaster. They will need to play with a bit more guile.
SHAKING THINGS UP.
Clearly the Lions needed some fresh thinking. To his credit, Gats has really stirred the pot with this week’s selection.
Hogg and Watson have been dropped completely, in favour of the aerial capability of Josh Adams and Liam Williams. They should offer more competitiveness than the back three last week did.
Henshaw is partnered with Bundee Aki: the imported Irish centre is the first partner the Athlone squeeze-box maestro has had that he has played with for more than an hour, coming into a test. On the plus side, the two will be very familiar with one another from their time together at Connacht and in the Ireland set-up. Henshaw is also arguably in a more comfortable position at 13.
Ali Price returns at scrum-half, to offer speed of foot – to complement the speed of thought of Dan Biggar outside him, who has been excellent in the series so far. The forward pack remains the same except for Wyn Jones, who recovers from injury to offer some strength in the scrum which struggled massively last week. Ken Owens also comes in at hooker despite his poor performance in the line-out last week.
The bench is very intriguing.
The inclusion of Adam Beard is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, but Gatland says the Welsh man has been included due to his maul defence which might be crucial to find an edge behind the ball as the gamwe grinds on. Sam Simmonds offers his dynamic pace and power as loose forward cover, but his abilities will be tested.
Finn Russell is a do or die player and he will come on in such circumstances. Russell isn’t as much of a game manager as he is a game changer. It’s just a question of who he changes the game for. He is at least sure to add some excitement to what will surely be an abrasive contest.
The Springboks’ team remains largely the same. However, they will be without key men Faf De Klerk and Pieter Steph Du-Toit. De Klerk is replaced by Cobus Reinach, whilst Franco Mostert moves from second row to cover du Toit at flank, with Lood De Jager packing down beside Eben Etzebeth. Morné Steyn also comes onto the bench, as Jacques Nienaber opts for a more traditional 5-3 split in place of the bomb squad.
OUR IRISH LIONS.
- Tadhg Furlong retains his spot at tight-head for the sixth consecutive time in a Lions shirt. He will want to prove himself upfront against the might of the ‘Bok scrum. He wasn’t at his best last week. However, he did show some grunt in both defence and attack. But set-pieces are key, and the man making up one half of DJ duo Scrum and Bass (the other half is Tom Curry), will relish the challenge.
- Jack Conan didn’t have the impact he would have wanted at the rear of a back-pedalling scrum and a rather submissive maul, but he has shown his quality so far on this tour. With Gats once again backing a man many were surprised to see included in the squad, Conan can give the Lions a bit of dynamism if the forwards manage to get some go-forward.
- Few people had pegged Bundee Aki down as a Lion. He hardly figured in the Six Nations, but the Connacht man has been good on this tour. He struggled defensively against South Africa A at times, but his brute strength in contact could be an answer to Lukhanyo Am and De Allende. He has a very important role to play this Saturday.
- Robbie Henshaw hasn’t shown what he’s capable of with ball in hand thus far on tour, but if Aki can do his job and nullify hit merchant Damian De Allende, we may finally see the Leinster man in full flow. He showed a flash of it in the first test and almost had a try in the second. Now, his vision and ability to craft cracks in the defence will be crucial to get the Lions shifting through the gears.
- Conor Murray starts on the bench as Ali Price gets the nod. Murray played well last Saturday but his kicking wasn’t perfect whilst he struggled to take control of the game in the second half, slowing the ball down which favoured the ‘Boks. It will be up to him either to drag the game out of the fire, or to steer the ship to safety in the last third of the game.
It’s the first time the Lions and South Africa have played a decisive final test in 111 years. It has the feeling of a historic occasion but neither team can look to history to gain confidence or get a leg up psychologically. We’re in uncharted waters here.
Whoever finds the edge will decide the place of this series in rugby history.