Handre Pollard will play in the first Test against the British & Irish Lions, with veteran flyhalf Morne Steyn on the bench. Springboks captain Siya Kolisi is among a small group still doubtful because of Covid-enforced isolation, writes Mark Keohane.
The ideal Springboks starting XV was never going to differ much from the starting XV that beat England 32-12 in the 2019 World Cup final. The only obvious departure was at loosehead prop because of Tendai Mtawarira’s retirement and at No 8, with Duane Vermeulen unavailable because of injury. Lock Lood de Jager is also doubtful because of injury and Covid.
For the rest, the best players remain those who started against England and who made up the substitute’s bench.
Pollard is integral to the Springboks attack because he is in a class of his own when it comes to South African flyhalf options. Elton Jantjies and (Morne) Steyn have both played flyhalf for the SA ‘A’ teams, against the Bulls and British & Irish Lions respectively, but Pollard remains the undoubted first choice No 10.
Pollard, who missed most of 2020 and the early part of 2021 with a knee injury recovery, played the last few matches of the season for Montpellier in France and also started at flyhalf against Georgia in the 40-9 once-off Test victory at Loftus in Pretoria.
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber and National Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus picked their strongest available line-up to play the Lions at the Cape Town Stadium last Wednesday, in the guise of SA ‘A’, and won 17-13.
Kolisi heads up a handful of players who only arrived in Cape Town on Monday morning, having had to isolate in Johannesburg because of positive Covid infections. The understanding is that most of the players tested positive but did not have any symptoms.
Nienaber and Erasmus, no doubt, will give Kolisi every opportunity to prove his match fitness over the next three days, and it may be a case of picking the inspirational World Cup-winning captain and asking him to empty the tank over 40 minutes, and then replacing him with Marco van Staden.
Lions coach Warren Gatland said he took comfort from the 17-13 defeat because the Boks had played their strongest line-up, but that wouldn’t be accurate because Frans Malherbe (at tighthead prop), Bongi Mbonambi (starting hooker), Kolisi (at flank), Pollard (at flyhalf) and try-scoring machine Makazole Mapimpi (wing) make a considerable difference to any starting XV.
The Boks, with these players ready to go, will be more settled and formidable than the SA ‘A’ Boks who started last Wednesday.
Gatland will also finally show his hand with the confirmation of his match 23, but his selection won’t have been made any easier with the comfortable warm-up matches against the Sigma Lions, the Sharks, the Sharks XV and the Stormers. The Lions won those matches by 42, 47, 42 and 46 points respectively. Nothing separated these South African teams when they played each other in the Rainbow Cup and nothing separated the manner in which they all three got walloped when playing a team of the Lions international class.
What has been interesting is reading the various opinions of former players and coaches, among them former England World Cup-winning coach and Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward. His starting XV, for instance, differed by seven players to another former England and Lions international, Matt Dawson, and the seven differential is consistent with most line-ups being selected by journalists and ex Lions players.
It asks the question more emphatically of the Lions than it does the Springboks, of just which XV represents the best for the tourists.
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