The Springboks Test series win against the British & Irish Lions is a bigger achievement for this special group of players than winning the World Cup, writes Mark Keohane. And the 2019 World Cup win was pretty darn special.
To those who label the world champion Springboks a ‘one-trick pony’, show these players and coaches the respect the best in the world deserve.
Put your bias to one side and acknowledge the DNA of these Springboks.
The World Cup is the prized possession in the professional game, but it is a one-off final that comes around every four years.
In the context of the Lions, who tour South Africa only every 12 years, a series win is one once in a playing career opportunity, unless of course you are Morne Steyn, who has now tamed the Lions twice with late penalty goals in 2009 and 2021 respectively.
But what makes this series win so significantly sweeter than demolishing England in the 2019 World Cup final, is the adversity this Bok squad had to endure to triumph against a fantastic group of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and who were coached by Warren Gatland, considered by many to be the best coach of his generation.
That view on Gatland may be influenced with this series defeat, but that is for another day and another discussion.
For now, the focus on Siya Kolisi’s Springboks, who won the World Cup and 22 months later, with just one Test in between against Georgia came from losing the first Test to win back to back Tests against the tourists and secure the most remarkable of series wins.
Kolisi was colossal in the second and third Tests, but he would be the first to object an singling out of an individual. The group, those in the match 23 and otherwise, were magnificent because in both the second and third Tests, the Springboks had to turn a half-time deficit into a victory.
They did it in the second Test through Siya Kolisi and Damian de Allende’s try-saving tackle on Robbie Henshaw and on Saturday night, in the series decider, the three minutes before half-time involved three of the most crucial turnovers, from a scrum penalty on the Lions ball, to a lineout steal and then the most inspiring of turnovers from Kolisi.
Jacques Nienaber, in his first Test series as head coach, could not have faced a bigger examination of his credentials. The most experienced and hardened of international coaches may have buckled under the pressure, but not Nienaber and his National Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus.
The two come as a partnership, and have for the past decade, be it Cheetahs, Stormers, Munster or the Springboks. As Eramus said, it doesn’t matter what title each wears, they work in tandem.
For the World Cup, Nienaber was the defence specialist and assistant coach. For this series, Erasmus was the water boy and sideline coach. Between the two, they made selections that proved decisive and they also made substitutions that provided impact, power and precision in the second and third Tests.
Nienaber was the rookie and Gatland the old warhorse, but the rookie was an emphatic winner in how the Boks responded to the challenge of no international rugby for 20 months, no crowds at the venues, no Test matches at altitude, with all three being played in Cape Town at sea level at the Cape Town Stadium and with 26 players testing positive for Covid after the first Test against Georgia.
There were no excuses from Nienaber or Kolisi. There was only defiance in how they responded to each challenge.
They picked a near Test team to beat the Lions 17-13 in the guise of the SA ‘A team and they also had to start the series without No 8 Duane Vermeulen and start the third-Test decider without Pieter-Steph du Toit, at No 7, Vermeulen, at No 8, and Faf de Klerk at No 9.
The Lions players had experienced a full Six Nations tournament and going into the third Test had played a one-off Test against Japan and seven matches on tour. They could also choose from the best of four very good nations, with two of them (Wales and England) having played in the World Cup last four.
Saturday night was huge South Africa. Take a moment, reflect on every obstacle there was and then consider that in the three Tests and SA ‘A’ game the vaunted Lions backs didn’t score a try and the Lions scored three tries in 320 minutes of rugby, all from driving mauls.
The Boks, so condemned for their lack of flair, scored four tries through their backs and in the SA ‘A’ game there were two home team backline tries.
The South African players, as the national or ‘A’ team had never played as a country at the Cape Town Stadium.
You can break down the list even further and go into the match details.
In the biggest moments of the second and third Test, the Boks produced the winning moments, and even in the SA ‘A’ win, the Boks, with 13 on 15 for 10 minutes, defied the visitors and emerged triumphant.
In years to come they will talk about this series, for the off-field controversies, for the lack of crowds, for the bio-bubble and of course for Morne Steyn’s boot doing the unthinkable and doing the Lions in two series, 12 years apart.
But what will forever be engrained in folklore is this bunch of Springbok players, coaches and management because they couldn’t rely on a one-Test wonder result to beat the best of the British and Irish.
Siya’s super stars had to do it over a three-Test series in which physics said they wouldn’t have the conditioning and the bookies said they weren’t good enough.
I was emphatic from the moment the Lions announced their squad that the Boks would win the series. I predicted three-nil, based on the quality of the Boks, a proper warm-up, two Tests at altitude in front of capacity crowds and the presence of players like Vermeulen, Du Toit and De Klerk.
That they did it 2-1 and did the Lions in an ‘A’ game without this trio, without a warm-up series and without a home crowd makes this bigger and better than demolishing England in the World Cup final in 2019.
Also on www.keo.co.za
How we called Morne Steyn to play against the Lions in an article on the 2nd November, 2020.