The British & Irish Lions were always going to whip South Africa’s domestic teams. The only time a judgement can be made on the Lions is after the first Test against the Springboks at the Cape Town Stadium on the 24th July, writes Mark Keohane.
And then, after those 80 minutes of Test rugby, we’ll all be set up for what should be the most intense 80 minutes to determine which way the series goes in the second Test, which in all likelihood will also be in Cape Town. Covid has ravaged this tour and turned it from an eight match rugby extravaganza into three one-off Tests, with the hope that we get to the third Test on 7th August.
I have loved watching the Lions play against Japan, the local Sigma Lions and the Cell C Sharks. The tourists have given us an exhibition of attacking class, scored 16 tries in two matches in South Africa and thrived in the rarified air of Johannesburg’s Airline Emirates Park.
But the Lions players, like their coach Warren Gatland, know that these matches against inferior opposition provide game minutes, the opportunity to test combinations and the confidence that comes from a winning habit. They are not the real deal and so often teams, at World Cups, have come undone because they’ve played no-one until a play-off, in which the players haven’t had time to adjust to the pressure and intensity of actually being tackled behind the gain line and being forced into decisions when they have a second to make it and not the hour that it must feel like when playing such limited provincial opposition.
The Lions players are class, because you have to be able to play rugby if you have been selected for the Lions. The squad in South Africa represent some of the best of four nations, two of whom were World Cup semi-finalists in Japan in 2019 and one of which (England) played in the final.
They are expected to hammer the likes of the Lions and Sharks, and to do so with style. The Lions, in the past week, have simply done their job as professionals.
The Springboks, in their first Test in 20 months, also did their job in beating a physical Georgia 40-9.
The Lions, whose cancelled match against the Bulls on Saturday, will be replaced with another fun riot of the Sharks, will again look like a million bucks, with props making offloads, running attacking lines you would normally associate with the best outside backs, and looking like rugby’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters.
In the other camp, the world champion Boks will ultimately have to make do with practise sessions against each other, which is why 46 players were put into a bio-bubble for the purposes of preparing for the three-Test series.
Sure, the Boks would have enjoyed another Test against Georgia and possibly even a third warm-up Test, but in a series of three Tests they have the luxury of dropping one and still being victorious.
I have been insistent that the Boks would win the Test series 3-0, and if my stance has softened it is because of the chaotic nature of this Covid dominated build-up, but I remain as confident as I was a few months ago that the Springboks will be strong enough to repel the Lions challenge and win the series.
If they win the first Test, they win the series 3-0. If they lose the first Test because of lack of game time, they win the series 2-1.
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber will focus on the mentality that speaks to the strength of mind that won the Boks the World Cup and the duo can draw inspiration from Argentina, whose players couldn’t get a competitive match played, domestically or internationally for a year and then flew to Australia, were in isolation for a fortnight and couldn’t train, and then beat the All Blacks for the first time in their history and drew twice in succession to Australia.
The Boks, warm up Tests or not, have the players, the coaches and the experience to still succeed against the Lions.
What Nienaber and Erasmus know is the make-up, look and pedigree of their tried and tested combinations.
This is what Gatland doesn’t know for sure because he can only know it at the end of that first Test.
If all roads on this tour now lead to Cape Town as a host then everything you need to know about the Lions, leads to that first Test.