A Springboks home series win against the British & Irish Lions will rank higher than the Springboks winning a two-Test series against the All Blacks in New Zealand later this year. It will also be bigger than the 2019 World Cup final win against England, writes Mark Keohane.
You ask any Springbok player about his international tri-factor and he’ll tell you winning the World Cup, beating the All Blacks in New Zealand and winning a series against the best of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
In the context of the current Springboks, the majority of the squad has won the World Cup and they’ve beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand. What’s missing is that series win against the Lions and it doesn’t get bigger than the next three Saturday’s for Siya Kolisi’s world champion Springboks.
Victory against the Lions will complete the most remarkable of campaigns, given all the disruption and uncertainty caused by Covid.
I always had the Springboks to beat the Lions in all three Tests, and my confidence was based on the quality of the Springboks and a Test schedule that meant that two matches in the series would be played at altitude, one in front of 90 000 at the FNB Stadium just outside Soweto and the other at the spiritual home of the Springboks, Emirates Airline Park, or simply Ellis Park for the rugby purist.
The Boks would also have had a two-Test series warm-up against Georgia and a SA ‘A’ match against the Lions.
It hasn’t played out that way.
The Boks got only one Test against Georgia, in which they scored six tries and won 40-9. Then disaster struck in the way of positive Covid tests and the second Test against Georgia was cancelled and several of the Bok squad were forced to isolate in their respective hotel rooms.
Even worse followed, when more than 20 players and management tested positive and 10 players had to be left behind in Gauteng when the squad relocated to Cape Town a fortnight ago in a tour rescheduling that meant the Lions would play the last five of their eight tour matches, including all three Tests, at the Cape Town Stadium behind closed doors.
The entire dynamic of the tour has changed.
Home crowd support and that of the 40 000 travelling Lions ‘Sea of Red’ is no longer a reality. There will be no supporters at the ground. Altitude, so often the big advantage to Springbok teams, won’t happen and the Lions could not have asked for a better geographic location than playing at sea level in Cape Town.
Everything favours the tourists and that is not to discount the enormous sacrifice all the players and management have made in being in South Africa for six weeks and being confined to a bio-bubble environment.
But the Lions have had game time, and tonight’s Test series opener will be their seventh match as a group in the past month, with five comfortable wins and one defeat against a SA ‘A’ team that included 11 World Cup-winning Springboks in the starting XV.
That 17-13 victory of 10 days ago showed every fighting quality that won the Springboks the World Cup in Japan in 2019, with the hosts having to play 13 against 15 for 10 minutes.
The Lions head coach Warren Gatland has only retained four of the starting XV from that match in a starting role for this evening, but such is the class and pedigree of the Lions that Gatland could pick two starting XVs and there would be no obvious winner.
I thought the Lions would be very good in South Africa but I didn’t expect them to look quite as good as they have in swatting aside the provincial challenge of the Lions, the Sharks and the Sharks reserves.
The provincial opposition has been poor, and the only time the visitors have looked well beaten was in the first 30 minutes of the SA ‘A match.
I feel the Springboks could drop the opening Test and recover to win the series, but if the Lions lose tonight, I have the Boks to wrap up the series next Saturday evening.
Kolisi, individually, defines the challenge facing the Springboks as a collective. South Africa’s captain has played just a handful of matches in the past two months and only arrived in Cape Town on Monday after 10 days in isolation. The influential flyhalf Handre Pollard and try-scoring machine Makazole Mapimpi were also in isolation.
Frans Malherbe, who is among the substitutes, was another confined to his room for 10 days and inside centre Damian de Allende has been magnificent in the past fortnight, despite recovering from burns to his face and leg. Lock Lood de Jager hasn’t had a competitive match in months after fracturing his leg in a freak training ground accident.
The Lions, as a collective, are as strong as you can get in world rugby. Individually, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all very good sides, and Gatland is fortunate to have such talent at his disposal. Wales, who won the Six Nations, only have three players in the starting line-up, which illustrates the strength of the Lions.
The All Blacks, right at this moment, aren’t as formidable a prospect as the British & Irish Lions, which is why success against the Lions would rank among this Springbok squad’s biggest achievement, bigger than the one-off Test win and draw against the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and bigger than the 2019 World Cup final win against England.
The Springboks have had one match in 21 months and a third of their match-day squad have had two training sessions in the past fortnight. To triumph amid this kind of adversity would be unrivalled, and triumph is what they will do.
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