The three-match contest between the Boks and British & Irish Lions could rank as one of the most unforgettable series of all time, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
After the announcement of the Springboks’ expanded squad for the British & Irish Lions series, head honchos Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber hosted a virtual media briefing. Towards the end of the conference, a question was asked what the Boks’ playing strategy might entail.
Without missing a beat, Erasmus responded: ‘Kick and chase,’ before both coaches burst out laughing.
It was a light-hearted moment, but one that spoke to a far broader question: Just what can we expect from this highly anticipated three-Test series?
After all, the waiting is now finally over. After more than 20 months of international inactivity, the Springboks returned to Test rugby with warm-up games against Georgia in early July, while the British & Irish Lions even broke from tradition by ‘hosting’ Japan at Murrayfield for The Lions 1888 Cup towards the end of June.
But all of this was peripheral. It’s only when the Boks and Lions clash at Cape Town Stadium on 24 July that we will gain true insight into what these two teams have been cooking up behind the scenes after months of intensive preparation. Yet, no one is expecting the Springboks to stray too far from the fundamental ingredients that were so prolific in 2019.
“Rassie will have the Boks well prepared,” says Matt Proudfoot, who was an assistant coach at the 2019 World Cup. “He will have done his homework on what he needs to do, and he will have created an environment to best prepare the team. He will be following a very similar path to what the Springboks did at the World Cup.
“Their preparation will be very similar, and I think that’s an environment the Springbok team is comfortable in: when there is a bit of adversity and backs are against the wall, Rassie will come in and give them a clear plan.”
Proudfoot, who is now part of the England coaching staff, offered such insights while featuring on a podcast hosted by former British & Irish Lions hooker Brian Moore. The consensus being that the Boks will have no reason to deviate from the forward-based strengths that are synonymous with South African rugby.
“I think Gats [Lions head coach Warren Gatland] and his team, particularly forwards coach Robin McBryde, will understand what the Springboks will bring,” Proudfoot said.
“If you look at the Springbok team selection, you know what the challenge will be. The World Cup was a bit different; people didn’t take as much notice because we had a poor game against Wales, we played Japan in the quarter-final, before that it was Italy, so that was the run-in to the final.
“But I think this time they will know exactly what to expect. The Springboks are not hiding any facts, they are not going to change their winning recipe. Knowing the Springbok environment, they’ve got a saying, ‘The bear is in your boat, but you’ve got to stop it’.
“So, that’s going to be the challenge, how the two packs match up to each other. But having coached in the northern hemisphere, and experienced the balance between power, forcefulness and intelligence, I believe it’s going to be a very tough series and the forward play is going to be very tightly contested.”
Let’s pause there. And then rewind to the 2009 series in South Africa, which does present some clues as we look to unpack how this year’s tour might play out, and where it may eventually rank in the history books.
It was during the opening Test in 2009 that the Boks famously targeted the Lions at scrum time, and the legend of ‘The Beast’ first took shape in Test rugby as Tendai Mtawarira steamrolled opposite number Phil Vickery.
“I remember there were a lot of articles before the first Test about how the British & Irish Lions were going to dismantle us up front,” Mtawarira tells SA Rugby magazine.
“So, we went into that first game and obviously gave them the biggest shock of their lives, especially at scrum time, plus with our normal physicality and how aggressive we are as South Africans, the strength that we have – we used that as a weapon and that is what they couldn’t handle in that Test match.
“We saw again in the 2019 World Cup final how the scrum still has a huge influence in a Test match, especially when you go up against teams like England and the British & Irish Lions. They really take a lot of pride and have a lot of confidence in their scrum, and if you target them there and you do well, it has a domino effect on your entire game.
“That’s what I think is going to be key, for us to be better up front against the Lions. We have the ammunition and we have the players to do the work in that area, and we have depth in South African rugby right now. So, yeah, as the saying goes, I think it’s still going to be won and lost up front.”
John Smit, who was captain of the Boks in 2009, has widely acknowledged that the nerves and weight of expectation heading into a Lions series are on a completely different level.
“The World Cup comes around every four years and if you’re lucky, you might play in one or two, but some of the greatest Springboks that have ever lived never got an opportunity to play against the Lions. That responsibility and hype added to what I found an extreme pressure.”
This is a pressure that can impact both players and coaches.
Indeed, another fascinating story from the buildup to that opening Test in 2009 is how the Lions went against the expectation that they would opt for Andrew Sheridan, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones in the front row. Instead, former coach Ian McGeechan picked Gethin Jenkins, Lee Mears and Vickery without the desired result.
“It’s one thing to pick a squad, but it’s an entirely different challenge to pick a starting XV, and picking the correct XV is probably the biggest and most important factor for any Lions coach,” Smit said.
“The tricky part can always be a coach getting wrapped up in the selection of his team by looking at what he think he might face against the Springboks. Everyone says you have to be physical against the Springboks, and that always makes me laugh, because it’s been like that for a 100 years.
“Nothing is different, we are not a 40-offloads-per-game team, we have a pretty big, robust pack of forwards with a few backs who can do some things out wide. So, for a Lions coach, I think it’s about picking who he thinks can best represent the British & Irish regions, and what they can do against the Boks.
“Trying to select someone to cope with a Cheslin Kolbe, or who the front row could be because of what happened in the World Cup final, I think that could distract a coach from what he has in front of him.”
Yet, what Gatland has already proved is that he will be ruthless in selection. When the Lions squad was unveiled in early May, there were several bold selections, including that of Irish centre Bundee Aki, Scotland centre Chris Harris, South African-born Duhan van der Merwe, Wales star Louis Rees-Zammit, as well as England loose forward Sam Simmonds, to name a few.
Meanwhile, the likes of Billy Vunipola, James Ryan, Sam Underhill, Johnny Sexton and Manu Tuilagi were deemed surplus to requirements.
It’s evident that Gatland will want a tight five that can compete with the Springboks, and a 10-12-13 combination that boasts a physical presence, but there are also personnel options that would offer X factor and mobility among their loose forwards and in the wider channels.
“The players are selected pretty evenly from each country. But there are more Scottish backs and more English and Welsh forwards,” Erasmus mused when sharing his thoughts on Gatland’s squad composition.
“So, if there are mostly Scottish backs and a Scottish attack coach [Gregor Townsend] then that must tell you something,” he added, alluding to Scotland’s impressive 2021 Six Nations campaign and the work of Townsend in developing the side into a formidable attacking force.
“Their pack is full of quick players,” Erasmus added. “Their loose forwards are busy, and you can also look at an athletic guy like Courtney Lawes, for example, and their props are mobile around the park. It won’t be like our semi-final against Wales at the World Cup where whichever team ground it out, won. That’s our thinking.”
Of course, though, it remains to be seen whether the Lions will be able to settle into their stride in order to enforce a potentially more expansive and high-tempo approach that takes the Springboks out of their comfort zone.
“If you’re not on it from minute one, there is no time to build up into a Lions series,” Proudfoot said. “You have got to apply pressure from game one, and that is what the Boks did well in the previous Lions tour, from the first Test they put the Lions scrum under pressure and had them on the back foot. I think Rassie will look at that as a recipe of how can they create momentum early.”
Ultimately, it’s impossible to know exactly how this series will play out. The Boks’ strengths are well known, but can the Lions find a way to nullify them? In turn, can the Boks contend with the largely unknown entity of this new-look touring team?
The safest bet would be to expect the unexpected, but what can be confidently predicted is that this will be a tour like no other, and which will leave an indelible mark on the careers of the chosen players who will head into battle over three successive Test weekends.