While it may be devoid of the of the passionate chants of the red-clad Lions supporters in the stands, while the bruising Springbok tackles won’t be met with hear the roars of their fans rising into the cold winter air, the 2021 British & Irish Lions series – despite the odds – is finally here and, from what we have seen so far, it promises to once again bring us rugby which will live long in memory.
The build-up to this first test has been nothing short of tumultuous, with the Covid-19 pandemic still flourishing in South Africa, mercilessly ripping through plans and schedules which have been years in the making. However, despite the obstacles, the tour has hitherto survived, with the grand crescendo within reach.
The Lions kicked things off with an historical home match against the Japanese at Murrayfield and, while the result favoured them with a 28-10 score line, it came at the cost of inspirational captain Alun Wyn Jones, who left the field early on with what was later to be determined as a dislocated shoulder – the first big blow to Warren Gatland and co. had come all too early.
Thus, the squad departed their shores without the cherished leadership of the most-capped test match player of all time and travelled to the tip of Africa where the World Champions lay in wait.
While Gatland was unable to enjoy the kind of preparation he had expected, his situation was golden compared to that of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber who were severely hobbled in their planning as best their South African-based Springboks could do was slug it out amongst themselves on the domestic scene – hardly the ideal preparation for a series of the magnitude of the British & Irish Lions. Fortunately, a large contingent of the current Bok team ply their trade on foreign turf, and thus were exposed to top-level club rugby for a decent period of time before the call came.
While the Lions’ tradition was forged in the amateur era, the spirit of professionalism is rampant on the tours of modern times and the players and staff wasted no time after landing in rolling up their sleeves and busying themselves in the execution of a successful campaign. The first challenge came in the form of the Sigma Lions in Johannesburg who were brushed aside 56-14 as the best of Britain and Ireland showed why they had been chosen to don the famous red jersey.
Meanwhile, that same weekend, the Springboks embarked on their first test match since the 2019 World Cup Final in Japan as they took on Georgia. Although it was a comfortable, 40-9 victory for the men in green, it was clear that they had been out of action as a unit for quite some time and the talk of a Lions’ series victory grew in volume.
The Sharks were next to come knocking at the Lions’ door and were in for a nasty surprise as the latter picked up where they had left off four days’ prior and trampled their rivals 54-7.
In their third game on tour, the Lions were scheduled to meet Jake White’s Bulls at Loftus Versveld in Pretoria, however, Covid-19 struck the latter’s camp – rendering them unavailable – and it was agreed that the Sharks would run out again to meet Gatland’s men. After a very competitive first half which saw the teams jog off at the break with the score locked at 26-all, the tourists ran away in the second half after Sharks scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse was issued a red card after striking an opponent with the elbow.
Amid talk of disappointment with regard to the quality of domestic opposition, the Lions travelled to Cape Town to face what has surely been the strongest SA A side ever selected – a team laden with first-choice Springboks as Erasmus and Nienaber tried desperately to fuel their squad with game time as the test series inched closer.
In what was labelled by the press as an unofficial “fourth test match”, the SA ‘A’ side came out firing, suddenly dispelling all notions of rust as they unleashed a marriage of trade-mark physicality and skill upon the unsuspecting Lions in the first half, running up a 17-3 lead going into the break. However, being the squad of quality which they are, the Lions regrouped and fought back well in the second stanza although, ultimately, they were to taste defeat for the first time on tour.
Having fallen short at the penultimate hurdle of the warm-up matches, the Lions set about regrouping as they delivered a powerful blow to the Stormers at the Cape Town Stadium. Final score: 49-3.
Now, all eyes remain fixed on Cape Town Stadium which will host the Test series in its entirety. Earlier this week, Warren Gatland named a team that no-one could have predicted; a squad of 23 comprising of 8 Englishmen, 5 Welshmen, 5 Irishmen and 5 Scots.
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Gatland admitted that the task of selection was no easy one.
“In my four Tours as a Lions coach, this was by far the hardest Test selection I have been involved in,” he said.
The 57 year-old Kiwi appeared very satisfied with the efforts his charges have put in thus far.
“We couldn’t have asked for more from the players so far; they’ve all put their hands up and made picking a starting XV incredibly difficult. In truth, we would have been happy with any number of different combinations across the 23, however, we’re very pleased with the side we’ve settled on.
“We know what we’re coming up against on Saturday. It’s going to be an arm wrestle, there’s no doubt about it. We’ll need to front up physically and be ready to go from the first whistle. When we played SA ‘A’ last week we probably took a bit too long to get into the game, something we can’t afford to do that again this weekend.
“We need to make sure we play in the right areas of the field, not give them easy territory and take our chances when they come.
“While the stands will be empty in Cape Town Stadium, we know Lions fans from across the home nations will be cheering us on back home. We’ll do our best to get the win.”
Many Lions fans were dumbfounded that the 23 was missing the name of Josh Adams after the Welshman became something of a try-scoring machine during the warm-up matches. However, Gatland opted for van der Merwe and Watson out wide.
"It was a really tough call in terms of [wingers] and leaving Josh Adams out. I spoke to Josh about what a tough call it was for us," Gatland said.
"Adams had a pretty emotional week last week after the birth of his child. And, by his own admission, he probably didn't play as well as he normally would last Saturday, and that's completely understandable.
"He also had a little knock to his hip and quite a significant blow to his sternum, which was pretty sore."
Much was made of the almost miraculous recovery of Alun Wyn Jones, who resumes his role as captain of the side after having joined them ahead of the Stormers game. It will be a real turn-up for the books if Jones is able to last against arguably the world’s most physical side, but his leadership qualities - forged through 157 Test caps – are invaluable to the squad.
“To be here, take knocks and bumps and be in amongst it with the group it means more. I’m not going to lie, it means more,” Jones said.
“I spent the first few weeks getting to know people, we were bedded in in the rugby. I had the seven minutes and for two days that was my tour done.
“I had the decent news on the Tuesday. Sometimes all you need is a chance – I was willing to work hard and get myself right, and make it difficult for the guy next to me, and to make myself available for selection.
“It has been pretty whistle stop for me since I spoke to Gats and some of the management about being involved on Saturday literally off the plane because we hadn’t really got that far because the timelines had moved forward a little bit.
“I was fortunate enough to get some game time on Saturday and put myself in contention. To be sitting here now and to be involved in the Test team is everything I have ever worked for really over the last, I would be lying if I said it was two years, it is probably four years.
“Obviously when you finish a series or a tour you don’t know whether you are going to tour next and a lot of games go under the bridge. To be sitting here now is a very, very special thing but it is only a very short step to what is going to be hopefully a very enjoyable week.”
Meanwhile, the Springboks also welcomed their captain somewhat unexpectedly. The general consensus was that Siya Kolisi would play no part in the first Test after only having very recently recovered from Covid-19. However, when it came time to announce the squad, his name appeared next to the number 6.
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Speaking after the announcement, Nienaber said:
“It was very important [that Siya is included].
“He has been a player we have worked with for quite some time, he knows our structures and what we’re trying to do from an on-field perspective.
“Obviously, he has been our captain, so it’s always nice to have him and he’ll bring some calmness to the squad and we’re very happy to have him back.
“Siya has been our captain and has been announced captain of this British & Irish Lions squad. It’s about consistency in keeping him there, and Handre was our vice-captain in 2019.”
Another intriguing selection was the energetic Kwagga Smith at number 8. With Duane Vermeulen out, the selectors cast the net out and brought in a certain Jasper Wiese – a barnstorming youngster plying his trade with the Leicester Tigers – who had a very encouraging start to what will probably be a long and fruitful Springbok career. This time around, however, he was left out of the match squad with Smith taking charge of the number 8 jersey with hard man Rynhardt Elstadt covering on the bench. Smith has become more accustomed to the eighthman role from his time in Japan and Nienaber appears to have seen enough to satisfy him.
“If we look at Duane, he’s a big heavy No 8 who plays in a specific way. He is a guy who could get and stop momentum. Kwagga actually does the same sort of thing for us, just in a different way,” Nienaber said. “He comes from a sevens background and gets momentum with his evasive skill set, which he learned in sevens.
“Even there, he had to deal with big Fijian players, so he’s developed his skill set over the years. Some people might ask how I can say this, but he probably offers something similar for us, just in a different style and way.
“If you think about Duane defensively, he is a good reader of the game, he’s got a good poaching ability and can slow the ball down. Kwagga possesses the same skill set but, yes, it is a slightly different look to what we normally have in the back row.
“But we’re comfortable with Kwagga, he fulfilled that role for us at the World Cup as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing him playing there.
“People also forget that in 2019, when we played against New Zealand in New Zealand, Kwagga was part of that team and partnered up with Duane when Siya Kolisi was injured. So it’s the nice thing about Kwagga, he actually covers 6, 7 and 8.”
When quizzed about what tactics he thought the Lions would bring, Nienaber’s response was open-ended.
“There’s multiple ways [the Lions] can look at the game,” he said. “They can go with the aerial bombardment, they can go with an out-passing, out-flanking game, they can come direct. I think there will be new pictures thrown our way and we will be forced to make solutions on the day.”
A name in the Springbok squad which deserves special mention, and which is a thorn in the side of any opposition team, is Cheslin Kolbe.
The diminutive winger – who plies his trade for Toulouse in the French Top 14 – is arguably the best player in the world at the moment and the extent of his talents are not lost on the Lions.
“Whoever is up against Cheslin will have to make sure they do their homework in order to nullify the threats he possesses,” said Lions winger Anthony Watson, who will be lining up on the opposite of the field to Kolbe.
“Everyone is aware of his skills and how much he can influence a game. You can also flip it on its head and try and look at where you can expose him on a one-to-one basis when he is defending.”
It will also be a big night for dynamic flyhalf Handre Pollard who will win his 50th Springbok cap. In the lead-up to the Test, Pollard defended the South Africans’ style of game which is routinely dubbed ‘boring’ by opponents.
"Why do we accept playing like that? It's the way we've been brought up," Pollard said.
"To me, it's the most beautiful thing ...that's the way we play. Throwing the ball around is nice for people watching on TV, but to me the way we play as the Springboks is a thing of beauty."
The Lions were given a shock when they came up against a South Africa A team bristling with talent and World Cup winners and the experience reinforced the notion in Gatland’s mind that the Lions’ start will be crucial. He also believes, however, that the Lions took more from the game than the Springboks did in that the former denied the latter the dominance they crave.
“In that A game we were very happy with the way our lineout went, our maul defence and our scrums. In a couple of scrums we dominated them. Whether they will come with a few different variations, I don’t think so; I think they will come with a harder approach,” he said.
“That is one aspect we dented their ego in terms of they haven’t had that dominance that they would have liked. I have been incredibly impressed with the way we have defended on this tour, and the way we have improved. We haven’t conceded a lineout maul try, or a pick-and- go try in this tour.
“That is one aspect we have worked really, really hard on and if we can stop them from dominating in those areas, they are going to have to go to something else in their game.”
Looking at the overall squads of both teams, this tour could very well take on the same physicality which so famously characterised the 2009 series – something for the fans to savour.
Interestingly, the last time the Springboks won back-to-back series against the Lions was in 1968. Since then, it has not been achieved.
As touched upon at the outset, the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour has tried and tested in a myriad of unfortunate ways. Fortunately, however, it has endured. While it will be remembered for its off-field adversity, let us hope that such memories will be dwarfed by those of the rugby produced.