JdV: Boks-Lions have everything to play for

Performing in empty stadiums will be a key factor in the series between the Springboks and British & Irish Lions, writes former Springbok captain JEAN DE VILLIERS.

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The Springboks and the British & Irish Lions face an enormous mental challenge before the three-Test series in South Africa. The strain of living in a bio-bubble is likely to be felt as a long tour nears its conclusion. Competing in an empty stadium – bereft of fans and the energy that so often inspires game-winning feats – will demand yet another shift in mindset.

When I think of a Lions tour, the hype and the energy around it springs to mind. I think of the fans – the locals and the travelling horde from the north.

It’s fair to say that the 2021 tour to South Africa, which will be staged behind closed doors unless the Covid-19 situation improves drastically and suddenly, will fail to live up to previous occasions in this particular respect.

When I look back on my time with the Springboks, I remember what it was like to play Test matches at home. You do take a lot of energy from what is a unique South African crowd.

In 2009, I got the opportunity to play against the Lions. It was a different experience altogether. There was so much media hype before that first Test at Kings Park. The travelling fans were everywhere. You couldn’t walk out the hotel door or down the road to the mall without seeing someone wearing a Lions jersey.

We got a shock when we walked out of the Kings Park tunnel on game day. There we were, expecting home-ground advantage in one of the biggest games of our lives, but the travelling support was so significant that it effectively cancelled out the local support.

Right away, we had to make an adjustment. We took it as part of the challenge. The Lions fans were making an almighty racket, and we felt we had to silence them. We did exactly when we scored early on. We eventually went on to win the game.

When we got to Loftus Versfeld for the second Test, the Lions were ready for us. We had to fight for every inch in that game. In the end, the South African supporters in the crowd inspired us to finish strongly and win the series.

The class of 2021 won’t have to deal with the crowd due to the Covid-19 situation and the ban on mass gatherings. I suppose that could be seen as a positive and a negative.

It’s a good thing in the sense that Siya Kolisi and his team won’t have to cope with the travelling fans as they threaten to take over the stadium. It’s a bad thing when you consider that neither set of fans will be allowed through the stadium doors, and the game will be robbed of the powerful energy that shapes big Tests.

Players are used to feeding off that energy. When lockdown lifted in England last August, the clubs struggled to adapt to a game without fans. More recently, after the fans’ return to the stadiums, the clubs have produced some outstanding rugby.

One can read something into that. The players have had a reason to put on a show. Generally speaking, you do, as a player, feel a greater sense of responsibility when you’re playing in front of an expectant crowd.

You shouldn’t need a crowd to inspire you when you are competing in a Lions series in South Africa. It’s a series that takes place once every 12 years and one that can make or break careers. The stadiums may be empty but there will be everything to play for when the Boks and Lions collide.

That said, both sets of coaches will appreciate the nature of the situation. The team that best embraces life in a bubble and builds a strong team culture will go into the Tests with an edge.

The side that best prepares for the unique challenge of playing in quiet, empty stadiums will be best placed to win the series.