Slowly but surely, things seem to be falling into place to ensure that the Springboks have the best chance to beat the British & Irish Lions come July, writes Oliver Keohane.
There are situations to whine about when we assess our chances of preparation for the touring British & Irish Lions. Our national team has not played together since the Rugby World Cup and our domestic sides are facing each other in yet another local tournament after the Rainbow Cup was unable to take flight fully.
However, there is a lot more to take comfort in than there is to bemoan, and this weekend was representative of all the things that are going right for South African Rugby as we build towards the Lions series.
Handre Pollard’s return to the playing field, after being sidelined by a serious knee injury for a year, was just one of the many positives from this past weekend. Pollard played an enormous role in the Springboks World Cup win in 2019, and ended the tournament as the form flyhalf in the world. 8 months on from tearing his anterior cruciate ligament he returned for Montpellier off the bench to play 22 minutes and kick a late penalty, and is expected to play a big role in the rest of their Top 14 campaign. Pollard also plays outside Cobus Reinach, a fan-favourite in South Africa and someone expected to feature for the Springboks again this year. How promising that Pollard returns with a couple of months to prepare, when many weren’t sure if recovery was likely before the Lions tour.
In other injury returns, 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year, Pieter-Steph Du Toit, managed to put in a full 80 minutes shift in the Stormers v Sharks derby, after also having spent a year on the sidelines. How Du Toit managed an entire match on his return is beyond me, but so have been many of his feats on a rugby field. In the same match, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi was classy and industrious in only his second game back for the Sharks and Marco Van Staden marked the start of his Rainbow Cup with another brilliant showing for the Bulls to continue to press Bok selectors for consideration.
As usual, it is not only locally where we watch to gauge our national quality. Week in, week out the point is made that the core of our 2019 World Cup winning side is working their magic on foreign shores, and every week they continue to impress. Cheslin Kolbe led headlines again as he starred for Toulouse in their 21-9 over Bordeaux in the Champions Cup semi-final and for the past few weeks Damian De Allende, Faf De Klerk, Jesse Kriel, Makazole Mapimpi and Willie Le Roux have been on top form, while Bok lock RG Snyman completes his return from injury soon.
Over past few weeks, Mark Keohane and Zelim Nel have picked a Springbok XV to front up to the Lions in a series decider were every single starting player from the 2019 World Cup final injured, with readers of SA Rugby Magazine picking their respective XV too. If the quality of those two teams alone does not give South Africa some sort of comfort, I’d be surprised to see what does, as for the first time in a long time Springbok rugby can be proud of it’s depth.
Even the complaint of another local tournament may be a misguided moan, as one could very easily look at the South African situation as one that has allowed for continued preparation in the conditions that the tour will take place in, with a sprinkling of exposure to the Northern Hemisphere’s best in our players who have been playing in Europe.
The South African sentiment is unfortunately often one of negativity, but let’s have some perspective in terms of the positive signs that are popping up every week as we get closer and closer to the challenge of the British & Irish Lions.