The British & Irish Lions Test team won’t know what it feels like to be tackled until that first Bok hit in the first Test at the Cape Town Stadium on 24th July, and it is down to no coaching or managerial wizardry. Covid’s bio-bubble squad restrictions mean that the Lions biggest Test before the first Test will happen on Saturday against Japan, writes Mark Keohane. And that makes for a Bok bonanza.
Warren Gatland, when he first spoke about the Lions eigh- match tour to South Africa, applauded the match schedule. The tour would start in Cape Town against the Stormers, then move to PE for an SA ‘A’ game, then to Durban for the Sharks, to Mbombela for an SA XV, to Pretoria for the Bulls, then the first Test at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, the second Test in Cape Town and the final Test at the spiritual home of Springbok rugby, Emirates Airline Park (always known as Ellis Park).
Gatland raved about the schedule, in how it started at sea level, allowed the 40 000 British and Irish travelling supporters to enjoy the great city of Cape Town, move up the coast to Port Elizabeth and then Durban, and then to the world of Safari Parks before the real rugby business started with a match against the domestic champion Bulls and into the three Test series against the world champions.
What a schedule and what a Test for the Lions. It would have been a lot like the 2017 series in New Zealand.
Covid, however, has done a dirty on everyone, and the Lions, more so than the Boks, may get the short end of the stick.
The Boks, who have been in camp in Bloemfontein for the past two weeks, will play two successive Test matches against Georgia, who will never beat the Boks but will give them a good old fashioned ‘koppestamp’ session. The Boks will know they have scrummed, been tackled and been cleaned out when playing Georgia. It will be a physical examination, even thought the two Tests won’t ask any questions of the Boks backs.
Gatland, who would have been banking on getting a sense of his starting XV because of performance and the intensity of full-strength SA sides, will now have to rely on his gut instinct because the Lions should smash every one of the four regional teams before the first Test. I haven’t factored in the SA ‘A’ game against the Lions on the Wednesday, preceding the first Test in Cape Town, because the starting XV of the Lions for that game won’t be starting the first Test.
The Boks, by default, have an advantage. The regions, by default are on a hiding to nothing and I fear so is Gatland in his selections, if based on performance and not potential or perceived pedigree.
Not one player in the Springboks squad of 46 will be released to play the Lions in the four regional matches because of the strict and non-negotiable Covid-enforced bio-bubble regulations.
The Lions will play no one of substance, and if you dispute this, ask yourself these questions. If WP/Stormers can’t beat the (SA) Lions, who lost to the Pumas, how are they going to compete with the best of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland? And most disturbingly, if Benetton bullied the Bulls 35-8, a Benetton team who lost 16 successive matches in Pro Rugby, what price for the Bulls against the Test Lions?
This magnificent prospect of a tour has been ravaged as a spectacle and an extravaganza because of Covid, but the bizarre nature of the revised schedule is that the Bok coaches probably couldn’t have scripted it better. They get to watch as the Lions play depleted regional teams, while they are in camp for a month united in the conviction of knowing their best starting XV, and having two brutal physical showdowns to shake out any cobweb of not having played Test rugby for 20 months.
This is a Bok bonanza, however absurd that may read or sound.