There is good reason for the Springboks to enter the British & Irish Lions series with confidence, writes MARK KEOHANE in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
There has to be optimism within the South African rugby public that the world champion Springboks are good enough to beat the British & Irish Lions.
South African supporters tend to be more bullish when the Springboks are written off as pretenders and when the team plays as if they are the hunters. In my 30-year experience of covering the Springboks the supporters show the most positivity and bravado when the team is on the back foot.
But they struggle to be bullish when there is an expectation that the Springboks should win.
No sooner had I predicted a 3-0 series win for the world champion Springboks, I was taken to pieces on social media. I was called arrogant, disrespectful of the British & Irish Lions and told to shut up. I was accused of giving Warren Gatland and his Lions additional motivation, which I found bizarre.
I doubt very much that my public backing of the Boks to win the series would register with Gatland or the team, and in this age of professional rugby I make the assumption that players are motivated enough to be successful, because playing rugby is their profession.
Players in a Springboks versus British & Irish Lions series certainly don’t need motivation. The men in red, made up of the best from the four Home Unions of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales (in alphabetical order) visit South Africa only every 12 years. A pre-series online prediction, made by me, is not going to prove defining.
It amazes me how personally so many South Africans took my belief in the ability of the Springboks. The counter to my faith in Siya Kolisi and his world champions went something like this:
*The Springboks haven’t played as a team since the 2019 World Cup final.
*The Springboks are playing four teams now and not just one.
*The best Springbok players are injured.
*South Africa’s domestic competition is turgid.
*Rugby up north is on another level, especially the English Premiership.
*Our regional teams won’t live with the best in Europe.
*Gatland is a master coach.
*Wales won the Six Nations.
*Watch out for those England players in the Lions squad.
*Scotland beat France and Ireland away from home.
*Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber has never been a head coach.
*The Lions have an advantage with their 40 000 travelling fans.
*The Springboks have no home-ground advantage because fans won’t be allowed at matches.
*The Lions will have played six matches before the first Test.
*Not even the All Blacks won a series against the Lions in New Zealand in 2017.
*The Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones has played 159 Tests.
*If Handre Pollard isn’t fit, the Boks are done.
I’ll save you the rest of a list that was endless.
My counter was to ask when was the last time the Lions played together. Oh, that’s right, this squad of players have never played together. At the end of May, they’d never been in a room together.
The last time the Lions were together, as a group, was four years ago in New Zealand. Half that group isn’t going to be in South Africa.
The Lions players have been playing in the same competition as several of the most influential Springboks, who play in France and the United Kingdom.
The World Cup Springboks, contrary to what I read on social media comments, have mostly been playing rugby for the past year, be it in France in the Top 14, in the Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup, in Britain and Ireland and in Japan.
They have also been involved in Super Rugby Unlocked (in South Africa), in the Currie Cup, in the domestic Preparation Series and in the Rainbow Cup SA. They have attended national alignment camps and all the regional coaches have been working closely with Nienaber and national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus over the past few months.
The Springbok squad, expected to be a group of 47 players, will also have been together for more than a month before the first Test against the Lions in Cape Town on 24 July, and they will have played two successive Test matches against Georgia on 2 and 9 July.
Because of the strict Covid biobubble protocols, the squad will be together for the entire time since they first assemble. Players and coaches and management can’t leave the bubble. It will be the same for the touring Lions.
The Springboks effectively will be on tour in South Africa, although their only two homes will be in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg and in Cape Town, with three of the eight tour matches hosted in South Africa’s Mother City, including the opening Test. The final two Tests will be at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.
Nienaber, although on his first head coaching assignment, is familiar with the Springboks’ World Cup players. He was Erasmus’ 2-IC from 2018 when they returned from 18 months at Munster in Ireland.
In terms of consistency, don’t expect much to change from the formula that served the Springboks at the 2019 World Cup. Nienaber will take charge of the Boks, but Erasmus won’t be far away and if he isn’t next to Nienaber in the coach’s box, he will be on the other side of an open telephone line.
Nienaber is unlikely to deviate from the core group of players who edged a brave Wales 19-16 in a dramatic World Cup semi-final and who overpowered England 32-12 in the World Cup final.
It is not the Boks’ fault they haven’t played since that fabulous night in Tokyo. It is also unfair to lose faith in them because they haven’t played as the Springboks since the World Cup final.
There are only a handful of 2019 World Cup winners who won’t be available. Loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira was massive for the Boks throughout his career and loose forward Francois Louw was worth gold in 2019. Players of this quality will always be missed.
But here’s the good news.
Mtawarira’s replacement is the Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff, who ranks as arguably the best loosehead in world rugby in 2021.
Veteran flyhalf Morne Steyn is also back at the Bulls and he has been the architect of so much that is good with the Bulls. Steyn’s form, even at 37 years old, gives comfort at flyhalf should the world’s highest-paid player and South Africa’s No 1 flyhalf Handre Pollard not be fit enough to play in the Test series.
Pollard, though, will be in the Bok No 10 jersey, having played in the European Challenge Cup semi-final and final for Montpellier and been influential in playing the last quarter in both victories. His form and fitness should be at a peak on 24 July.
Here’s a reminder of those 23 Rainbow Warriors who triumphed in the World Cup final against England.
Springboks 2019 World Cup final match-day 23: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Mbongeni Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Franco Mostert, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn.
Outside Sharks captain Lukhanyo Am, the entire starting backline has been playing competitive rugby overseas since the World Cup ended, with Pollard’s injury-enforced absence for eight months a thing of the past.
Without fail, these players were among the best for their clubs in France, Ireland, England and Japan.
Kolisi found form with his move from the Stormers to the Sharks and the 2019 World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit returned from a lengthy injury absence and within a month looked like he had never been out of action.
The reserve backs have been equally strong, with Herschel Jantjies and Frans Steyn still doing their thing for the Stormers and Cheetahs.
The forwards have made as big an impact. The two front-row combinations have all been playing well and Trevor Nyakani further boosts the Springboks prop share price.
The World Cup final starting loose-forward combination remains largely intact and lock Eben Etzebeth will lead the second-row selection, with Franco Mostert likely to be his starting lock partner because of injury to Lood de Jager and RG Snyman.
There isn’t an available World Cup final Springboks squad player who wouldn’t warrant selection, based on form and pedigree. The next best, in South Africa and playing overseas, haven’t done enough to break the match-winning starting formula.
Which doesn’t mean there isn’t depth. There are plenty of contenders.
Player pedigree, squad depth and coaching continuity are why I haven’t lost faith in the world champion Springboks, despite not seeing them play since the World Cup final.
It is not disrespecting Gatland and his Lions; rather respecting the quality of Kolisi and his Springboks.