Mark Keohane, writing for the Cape Times and IOL Sport
Earlier this week a mate called me to ask why the British & Irish Lions were the bookies’ favourite to win the Test series against the Springboks?
My response was to tweet that the Lions wouldn’t win a Test match, let alone the series.
You don’t have to second guess the stereotypical South African response, which included putting the Lions players on a pedestal, disregarding the World Cup-winning exploits of the Springboks in Japan in 2019 and arguing that the lack of Test match activity for the Springboks in the past 18 months would be decisive.
The Springbok World Cup-winning squad is pretty much intact. The coaching continuity is ensured through Rassie Erasmus’s involvement as the Director of Rugby and the one still calling the shots, despite the promotion of Jacques Nienaber to head coach.
The Boks have not played together since whipping England 32-12 in the World Cup final, but the Lions of 2021 would never have played together until their pre-tour warm-up against Japan in Scotland.
The Lions will have four or five tour matches before the Test series, but the Springboks will also play warm-up matches and be in camp.
The least of my concerns are that they haven’t played as a unit since the World Cup. It would potentially be an issue if there had been a radical overhaul of the Boks since their World Cup success.
The calm and certainty is within the Springboks squad, whereas Warren Gatland’s Lions will arrive with plenty of self-doubt, none more so than the coach who experienced a horror losing run with the (Waikato) Chiefs in 2020.
The recently completed Six Nations, won by Wales, produced some superb rugby but the inconsistency in performance from England, Scotland and Ireland would have asked more questions than given answers and there can’t be conviction in assessing Wales’s triumph, given that three of their wins came against teams reduced to 14 players.
The fall from grace and relegation of Saracens from the Premiership has resulted in Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, the Vunipola brothers (Mako and Billy) and Jamie George being deprived of quality regular rugby. It showed in their indifferent Six Nations performances.
The South African players, those based overseas and in South Africa, have been playing regularly and the most encouraging aspect has been the form of several of the most influential Springboks. Duane Vermeulen was colossal in the Bulls Currie Cup title win, while Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi have been sizzling all year. Midfielders Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende are on top of their game and the halfback options, led by Sale’s Faf de Klerk, are plenty.
Handre Pollard’s return from a serious injury is not guaranteed, but in his absence veteran Morne Steyn’s year has provided comfort that there is cover to support the current squad incumbents Elton Jantjies and Damian Willemse.
The Boks tight five options are unrivalled in the world game, while captain Siya Kolisi is also playing again.
Pieter-Steph du Toit is another who should be fit for the series.
Never has a Bok squad been as settled, in terms of cohesion, as the current crop of world champions.
The Lions have it all to do in coming to South Africa, being in the expected bio-bubble for two months and playing the Springboks without the support of the travelling red army.
I still don’t get how the hell they are favourites.
The Boks smashed England in the World Cup final and beat Wales in the semi-final. Ireland conceded 46 points in the quarter-final against the All Blacks and Scotland didn’t make it to the play-offs.
The Boks should be expected to win – and win well.
Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images