Ultimate showdown: Boks vs Lions 12-year wait is finally over

The Springboks are ready to tackle the British & Irish Lions after an intense and intricate buildup to the long-awaited series, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

New issue: Boks set sights on taming Lions

Several weeks ago, Rassie Erasmus was moved to make an unconventional statement.

Firstly, and in what appeared as a bolt out of the blue, an article from an overseas-based journalist gained real traction in global rugby circles. In no uncertain terms, it called into question the Springboks’ status as the best Test team in the world and their preparation for the British & Irish Lions series.

“They are rightfully World Cup holders, but this era of Springboks rugby hasn’t proved to the world they are anything but a good side who won the World Cup with a helpful schedule,” the New Zealand scribe wrote. “The Springboks have ducked competition and hid since winning the World Cup, trying to prop up an illusion that this side is the best team in the world instead of making that a reality with a bold 2020 campaign.”

Understandably, these were words that would have left South African supporters – and even those in the Bok camp – spluttering with indignation.

Shots were well and truly fired, but the writer went on: “You could argue the Springboks’ preparations for the Lions tour are as bad, or even worse, as those for the 2020 for the Rugby Championship, yet there is little chance we will see them pull out due to concerns over player welfare in Test rugby this time. That’s not to say it will be a walk in the park by any means, but if you think the experienced Lions players haven’t had tougher opponents, you are kidding yourself.”

Now, it’s not unusual for members of the media to fire up their keyboards with emotive opinion-based missiles that are often aimed at garnering maximum attention and engagement. Most often, those in the firing line will take the high road and avoid even bothering with a reply.

Yet, Erasmus has always done things a little differently. From within the trenches of intense preparation for battle against the British & Irish Lions, the South African director of rugby popped up to fire off a parting shot of his own.

Taking to Twitter to respond to the article that spanned over 1 300 words, the Bok boss succinctly silenced such criticism: “This always made sense to me: A lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinion of a sheep.” If he were at a press conference, you could almost imagine Erasmus delivering such a line before dropping the mic.

Having said that, Erasmus has been around long enough to know that this is all part of the sideshow. For months, the Springbok coaches have been getting stuck into the far more serious business of ensuring the national troops are ready for the long-awaited Lions series.

It has been a difficult journey just to get to this point. Immediately after the Springboks’ success in the World Cup final, Erasmus was already casting his eye towards the Lions challenge. “We have about 600 days until the British & Irish Lions arrive for the tour of South Africa,” he said in the wake of the win over England.

And yet, as a settled group, the Springbok squad and management have not all been together since those World Cup after-parties.

Beast Mtawarira, Schalk Brits and Francois Louw have since retired, while forwards coach Matt Proudfoot switched allegiances to England. The challenges brought about by the pandemic also led to the departure of highly respected head of athletic performance Aled Walters.

He has been replaced by experienced former Saracens strength and conditioning coach Andy Edwards, while Daan Human (scrum consultant) and Deon Davids (assistant coach) are the other additions to the Bok coaching staff.

For Jacques Nienaber, who has shifted into the head coaching berth, this will be a baptism of fire like no other. Nienaber could never have imagined that his first series of significance in the top job would be against the Lions, but the affable 48-year-old tells SA Rugby magazine he is in his element.

As we started our interview and I asked Nienaber how he was, his answer spoke volumes: “I’m good, busy, really busy. But I love it,’ he stated emphatically with an excitement that was almost tangible.

“For me this is such a big opportunity – I would say a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – and not just for me but for the players too. The next opportunity to host a British & Irish Lions tour is only in 2033. Other than Frans Steyn, there are not a lot of players in the southern hemisphere who have the opportunity to play against them twice; some players never have the luxury of playing against them at all.

‘It’s a unique opportunity to play against the Lions and, for me, it’s an unbelievable privilege. It’s such a big occasion. We would have played them anywhere, you know, if it was in the UK or Dubai; we were prepared to pull out all the stops to make this tour happen, and I’m just unbelievably happy and privileged that it is actually happening, because of the magnitude of the occasion. After the World Cup, this is the second-biggest challenge anyone will ever have to face.”

It goes without saying that time has been of the essence. Preliminary preparation and alignment camps in April first served to set out clear expectations of what was required from players who were in the national frame, with some of these talks taking place in person, while others were conducted online.

“The main thing we wanted to get across in those first alignment camps was basically to show them a schedule,” Nienaber says. “It was a bit of a reality check in terms of where we are. I say that in terms of the whole organisation. It was a case of, listen; How are we doing? Where are we in terms of our high-performance areas, for instance on strategy, our gameplan, our ownership and our discipline?

“Where are we with player recruitment and with the selection process? So it wasn’t just a player-based reality check, it was across the board, including from the medical perspective. It included up to eight critical areas, the players being responsible for some of them and management for the others.”

It was also in keeping with how the Boks have been going about their business, which has been intensely focused on internal preparations.

The Springbok coaches have been working with an extended group of players, all of whom have had varied ‘entry points’ into camp as local players from around the country gathered at different stages, while certain overseas-based stars filtered back at the completion of northern hemisphere competition.

It stands to reason that the Boks are operating with an expanded group of players, and a split-squad system is certain to come into play at some point this year.

“When the revised schedule and venues were confirmed for the Lions series, it provided us with that line in the sand,” Nienaber says.

“We knew when certain players would start entering our preparation camps, and from there we could start planning what the content will be. In week one, there might be only the six Japan players and in week two we might have some of the France players available who are not playing in knockouts. So if that squad size was around 15, the content of that week looked different compared to the first week.”

And while the Springbok management have been working with an expanded ‘alignment’ squad that has included exciting newcomers such as Jasper Wiese, Joseph Dweba, Rosko Specman and Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, the core of the World Cup-winning squad remains very much intact.

In fact, there’s no reason to believe the Springboks’ starting XV against the British & Irish Lions won’t be almost identical to the side that started the 2019 World Cup final. And despite not playing any international rugby since the World Cup final, Erasmus and Nienaber will know exactly what they can expect from the players available for selection.

“The challenge is to utilise every minute we can and be as specific as possible because the time we have is unbelievably reduced. So, obviously, your messages must be concentrated, and I think that is the tough part: to simplify,” Nienaber says.

“But having said that, we’ve got 30 of our 33 World Cup players together: obviously that experience will help a lot, provided that they are all medically fit enough, and mentally up for operating in a bubble. There are a lot of “ifs”, but if they are up for that and they are in form, it is invaluable to have that experience because players do have a real understanding of how things operate within the Springbok camp.”

Indeed, this squad will surely benefit from the familiarity they have, the intellectual property retained from the two memorable 2018 and 2019 seasons under the Erasmus reign, and the fact there is set to be real continuity in selection from the World Cup.

It’s also unlikely the Springboks will stray very far from the sort of gameplan and strategies that served them so well during that tournament – think physicality, pack dominance, an aggressive defensive system and a sound kicking game – but there will also be subtleties and innovations that can be expected.

Erasmus and Nienaber always have a trick or two up their sleeves – from midfield mauls to carefully constructed set plays to identifying the ‘soul’ of the opposition – and it’s these little innovations and variation that will make all the difference against a high-quality pride of Lions.

And just in case the Boks need any more motivation, the contents of one certain article may just be posted in the team room as a reminder why there are more than enough reasons to be fired up with a point to prove.

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Craig Lewis