SA Rugby magazine picks five players who could be match-winners for the Boks against the British & Irish Lions.
The 2009 Lions series was decided by the boot of Morne Steyn and the narrow margins in Test rugby suggests Pollard will be equally decisive in 2021.
The hard-running flyhalf was the leading points-scorer at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan and also kicked the most penalties at the tournament, including two conversions and six penalties in the final to help South Africa to a 32-12 victory against England.
Unfortunately, Pollard ripped a knee ligament in September last year while on duty for Top 14 club Montpellier. This is the second time his career has been paused by a season-ending knee injury.
It is not a foregone conclusion that the 48-Test veteran will be fully recovered and combat ready when the Lions arrive in the Republic. But the 27-year-old is central to the Bok set-up and the fact coach Jacques Nienaber will give him until the 11th hour to prove his fitness was summed up by one pundit: “The Boks will play him on crutches, mate!”
Though Pollard’s impressive tally of points in Japan belie a nine-year career in which his goal-kicking accuracy has fluctuated between superb and average, the plucky pivot has proven his mettle when it comes to nailing the biggest kicks on the biggest stage.
Kolbe needs no introduction in a conversation about match-winners. The diminutive Bok wing did a disappearing act on Owen Farrell in the Rugby World Cup final, tearing away to score the try that gave Bok fans the all-clear to pop the champagne on South Africa’s third world championship.
And the magician doesn’t look like running out of tricks any time soon as he has continued to bamboozle would-be tacklers in the Top 14, where he’s lined up in several positions for Toulouse.
The 14-Test dynamo is an escape artist who specialises in creating an exit when it appears there isn’t one, and it’s this reputation for conjuring scoring opportunities out of thin air that may well be more of an asset to South Africa than what he actually does on the ball.
The Boks launched the most prodigious kicking game at rugby’s showpiece event in Japan and the sting in the tail of that plan was the pressure created on the receiver by a wall of chasing defenders.
An outside back’s natural instinct is to beat that wall with a kick into space. Kolbe will loom large in the mind of the Lions counter-attack coach who will anxiously drill his receivers on the hazards of an unscripted return kick on the explosive Bok flyer.
The mere threat of Kolbe will drive the Lions into the teeth of the Bok defence, where the world champions are at their most comfortable.
Willie le Roux
While the Springboks have always been renowned for kicking and defence, it is the attack that has developed into a legitimate weapon under Rassie Erasmus. Willie le Roux was the key component in that evolution.
Handre Pollard’s penchant for flat attack often sees the flyhalf deployed in the direct-assault corps – testing the interior defence to spell a wave of forwards powering off nine.
With a broadsword flyhalf forcing the defence to raise their shields and close ranks, Le Roux steps in at first receiver as the perfect foil to pierce a condensed line.
Having come through as a provincial flyhalf before settling at fullback, Le Roux is able to draw on a valuable set of skills and experience as a first receiver. A savvy decision-maker, the 31-year-old recognises the front-line threats and opportunities without losing sight of the field behind the wall.
Le Roux drops in at first receiver once the world’s most physical pack has already bombed defensive positions like a toddler drops into a jumping castle once it’s been filled with his favourite candy.
Lions forwards coach Robin McBryde has already admitted the tourists can’t go toe to toe with the Bok pack for 80 minutes and that means Le Roux is assured of at least some time in the pocket to put his teammates into space.
Siya Kolisi has his work cut out for him in this series. The world champions haven’t assembled for almost two years, and the first serious test of their credentials will be invigilated by a team comprising Britain’s best players.
It would be a stern challenge for any leader, one made even more trying for the Bok captain, given the road he’s walked since inspiring a nation by hoisting the William Webb Ellis trophy in Tokyo.
A one-club man for the first nine years of his career, Kolisi traded Table Mountain for the warm Indian Ocean, arriving at Kings Park without the tailwind of impressive domestic form and having made more headlines off the field than on it in recent times.
The 29-year-old will need to have put all of that behind him when he leads the Boks out against the Lions for his 51st cap because tight Test matches place a premium on composed leadership and shrewd decision-making.
Continuity is one thing neither team will have much of when the bullets start flying and Kolisi’s ability to think clearly will determine whether his teammates remain in the assertive headspace common to world champions or succumb to the seeds of doubt.
This will manifest itself in the captain’s decision-making around penalties. Ignoring easy shots at goal may lure the Boks into overconfidence; pointing to the uprights when the tourists are wavering could galvanise the Lions pack.
Managing the referee is of utmost importance, never more so than when an ill-timed penalty could take the shine off a nation’s status as world champions.
Morne Steyn may have clinched the 2009 series in the second Test with his match-winning penalty at Loftus Versfeld, but the more discerning rugby supporter would argue that the tourists were doomed by what Beast Mtawarira did to Phil Vickery in Durban one week earlier.
Now the most capped loosehead in Springbok history, Mtawarira crumpled the Lions tighthead prop like an empty beer can at a varsity party.
Mtawarira challenged the tourists’ status as Lions, roaring emphatically as he emerged from one demolition of Vickery, and spectators could almost see the backs in red jerseys trying to swallow a lump in their throats as they watched the scrum reverse towards them.
Steven Kitshoff was 17 when all this was going on, two years away from making his Stormers debut. Twelve years later, Big Red is a 47-Test Springbok and, according to some counts, the best loosehead in the game.
A one-man wrecking crew, Kitshoff will be tasked with unhooking the anchor to the Lions scrum. Sports marketers in overpriced pointy-toe shoes have made every effort to take the scrum out of the game, but it remains central to the contest for possession and territory, and for physical and psychological dominance.
The ginger juggernaut is primed to power into the Lions set piece, driven forward by his boyhood memory of Mtawarira’s exploits and the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a giant.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports