One of South Africa's strengths is their fearsome scrum
The talented Finn Russell poses an interesting dilemna for the coaching team
Coming around once every 4 years the British and Irish Lions tour is, after the World Cup, the absolute pinnacle to reach for a player from the Home Nations, some even rate it above a World Cup. When you consider the fact that they alternate their opponents every 4 years between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa this means that those players from the Southern Hemisphere are, more than likely, only going to have one crack at playing against the Lions.
The first official Lions tour took place in 1910 when the Lions toured South Africa. The 2021 tour of South Africa will be their 14th tour of the country, in that time the Lions have only won 4 series and it is generally accepted that South Africa along with New Zealand are the two toughest places in the world to go on a rugby tour to. Whilst the land of the white cloud will have players with silky ball handling skills and dazzling feet with a bit of grit for good measure, a tour of the Republic is a completely different kettle of fish.
When South Africa play to their strengths a physical encounter is non-negotiable, no prisoners are taken on the
field and one can be assured that this series will be no different. With the use of television match officials and much stricter protocols around player safety the players will need to be careful of how they need to stay within the laws of the game. One would be naïve to think that players would be able to get away with moments of madness like Schalk Burger’s eye gouging of Tommy Bowe 12 years ago.
South Africa has gone through a well documented renaissance over the past 4 years. When they won the World Cup one couldn’t help but feel that the team was still on the rise and still has so much more potential. Although they are under a new coach in Jacques Nienaber, that is not actually the case, he is a continuation of Rassie Erasmus’ grand plan to save South African rugby in his capacity as director of rugby. Erasmus is still very much involved and it will be interesting to see how the coaching box looks during the game, will the new coach be given full reign to do as he pleases or does he have to go with what his boss wants? Either way Nienaber and Erasmus are clearly on the same wave length so one doubts it will matter that much.
As well as there not being much change in the coaching box, there hasn’t been much change in the team either, 3 players who were part of the successful 2019 RWC squad have retired but the rest of them are still there. There will definitely be a need to inject some fresh blood into the squad to keep the other players on their toes but now is not the time to be experimenting unless it is absolutely necessary. Much was made of the Springboks’ unwillingness to take part in the Rugby Championship in 2020 citing a lack of match fitness, the rugby world accused SA Rugby of "cowardice". The Pumas going on to beat the All Blacks for the first time and then drawing twice with the Wallabies added volume to those calls, but what Erasmus did was 100% correct. One could not expect the players to make the step up from 3-4 weeks of provincial rugby to playing games against teams whose players had been playing for the past 3 months and were thus in peak physical shape. The chances of injury, especially with South Africa’s traditional physical approach, were too great.
One of Erasmus’ master strokes as coach of South Africa was to finally being able to draw a line under the selection of overseas based players and removing all restrictions on Test caps, etc. A rugby player’s career will not last forever and with the weak South African currency it only makes sense for a player, if given the opportunity, to maximise his potential overseas and benefit from that financially. Erasmus has also been smart in developing good relationships with some of the clubs in Europe where they will release players should they be called up, examples of these clubs are Sale Sharks, Montpelier and Munster. In return Erasmus recommends these clubs to players who are seeking opportunities abroad so it goes both ways.
The Springboks have always performed better when their backs are against the wall and they are not the favourites. The World Cup triumph 2 years ago is a prime example, people expected South Africa to be competitive but after only just coming out of a really tough phase nothing more was expected of them. Admittedly they did get a favourable draw but at the end of the day you can only beat who is put in front of you.
Going into the Lions series though there is a strong argument to say that they are favourites because as stated previously apart from a couple of players the core of the team that won the World Cup is still there. The recently completed Rainbow Cup will hopefully ground them a little bit, the Bulls going down to Benneton was a pretty humbling experience for the team that won Super Rugby Unlocked, Currie Cup and SA Rainbow Cup Conference and was widely accepted as the strongest province in South African rugby. From a Springbok supporters point of view one can only hope that this is the wake up slap that the players needed and now is not the time to get complacent. Hopefully the coaching staff can use this episode to motivate the players.
This is a very strong Lions squad though with a nice mix of experience and youthful flair. They haven't lost a series since the 2009 defeat to South Africa so they will have extra incentive to keep that run going.
Let’s compare the two teams. SA showed how much they relied upon their forward pack at the World Cup with a 6 – 2 split on the bench and I have no doubt will use this tactic again. The old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t try and fix it” springs to mind. Down the decades SA has produced hugely talented front rows and the class of 2021 is no different. Steven Kitshoff, Trevor Nyakane, Frans Malherbe and Vincent Koch are all proven performers on the international stage. Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi would walk into any team in the world when on form, the selection of Joseph Dweba who was so impressive when playing for the Cheetahs for a couple of seasons before moving to Bordeaux is a pick I really do like. While the likes of Sinckler, Owens, Vunipola ( Mako ) and Furlong are decent players I do have to say that I think the Boks have the stronger front row.
The second row holds a few injury concerns for South Africa and they could potentially be without De Jager and Snyman. If these two are not fit I don’t see Orie and Du Preez being suitable replacements when you look at who they are up against. Alun Wyn Jones, although bit long in the tooth, and Maro Itoje are world class, with Henderson and Lawes behind them I see the Lions edging this department if SA lose both locks. If they only lose one then I would say it’s pretty even. The loose forwards was an area that will be the difference between the two teams and the Lions have gone with some very mobile loosies which has the potential to backfire on them. The likes of Curry, Simmonds and Watson are exciting players but I wonder if the Lions have missed a trick by not taking along someone like Billy Vunipola instead. I personally feel they need to match the Boks’ physicality and Vermeulen, Kolisi and Du Toit have that in bounds. Add the likes of du Preez, van Staden and Wiese to the party and I see the Boks edging the loose forward battle. The fact that the 2020-21 Pro 14 player of the season, Marcel Coetzee, can’t even get into the squad tells you what depth there is here. My pick is the Boks edging it here.
The backline is an interesting one as it will very much depend on the game plan that the two teams go with. I think the Lions are going to run the ball as much as possible while the Boks will follow their World Cup strategy of a lot of kicking for territory and up & unders. Whilst running the ball at sea level will seem like a good strategy it is only the First Test that is being played there and Tests two and three are in the highveld in Johannesburg where the ball will travel further but you will really start to feel the pace after 60 minutes. Gatland will have to have two game plans in my opinion one where they run and the second where they can kick. Apart from France’s Antoine Du Pont, Faf De Klerk is probably the best scrum half in world rugby at present and will definitely be the best of the two teams in this series. His running and kicking game has continued to improve post World Cup playing at the Sale Sharks whilst his defence is beyond question. I do not think that Finn Russell is suited to a kicking game and if Gatland chooses to go that way then Biggar will get the nod with Farrell at inside centre. They will be up against Pollard who hopefully over his injury problems, with De Allende and Am having built up a great partnership over the past few seasons I see the Boks being able to handle anything that the Lions throw at them here. I’m not too confident in the South African replacements though and if there is an injury to one of these three, which will probably happen over a 3 Test series, then I see this swinging the Lions way.
On the wings South Africa has the irrepressible, twinkle toed Cheslin Kolbe to call upon as well as their World Cup try scoring machine Makozole Mapimpi. They will be up against the experienced Liam Williams and my Lions bolter for the series Louis Rees-Zammit who was superb for Wales in the 6 Nations. A square off between full backs Stuart Hogg and Willie le Roux looks more than likely going to happen and these two probably cancel each other out. Kolbe and Mapimpi sway the barometer in South Africa’s favour here.
The backlines overall are pretty even, injuries could play a big role and my main concern is South Africa’s lack of depth at fly half. While it’s a nice story Morne Steyn is not going to be able to front up to a Lions Test match and I think he is there more for his experience and mentoring some of the youngsters similar to how Schalk Brits did in 2019. Pollard's fitness and formis going to be crucial.
Where the series will be defined though is where the games are played and this is ultimately where the barometer swings in the Boks’ favour. The first Test will be played at sea level in Cape Town where the Lions will have been based for the previous 10 days they will then have to trek up to the highveld for the second two matches and play at altitude which will really start to effect them after 60-70 minutes if they try to go with a running game which I would back them to do in Cape Town. The Boks however have the advantage of basing themselves in Johannesburg before heading down to Cape Town for a couple of days to play the first Test and then returning to Johannesburg, their bodies will be used to the altitude and they will not be as affected.
The Lions to win the first Test in Cape Town playing flowing running rugby before the Boks bounce back to win Tests two and three in Jo’burg with their traditional physical, rising up from the ashes approach to win 2-1. A competitive series I have no doubt and I see the Lions losing a Test series for the first time in 12 years following their success’ in Australia and New Zealand on their previous tours.
The 1910 Touring Lions Squad