When it comes to predicting the future, it is advisable to study the lessons of the past. Prior to the staging of the first World Cup, in New Zealand and Australia in 1987, nothing stirred the sporting passions of the rugby-mad Afrikaans community in South Africa more than a test series against New Zealand or the Lions.
While the Lions had only a drawn series in 1955 to show for their efforts since a winning series in 1896, until Willie John McBride’s invincibles powered their way to an epic victory in 1974, the All Blacks never managed a series win in South Africa until Sean Fitzpatrick’s men finally delivered in 1996 after decades of failure.
Bear in mind that the Springboks didn’t get to participate in the World Cup until hosting it in 1995 after the dismantlement of the apartheid regime and the ascension of Nelson Mandela to the presidency. Weeks after that incredible event, the sport changed forever when the IRB presided over a famous vote in Paris and the game turned professional.
In looking for pointers as to how the current series is likely to work out, let’s look back on the two tours hosted in the professional era. In that respect, Warren Gatland will harbour clear grounds for optimism given that, in both 1997 and 2009, the side that won the opening test went on to secure an outright victory.
If there’s one thing that Springbok supporters are not short of, it’s confidence. The fact that they won the first World Cup they participated in, on that emotionally charged day at Ellis Park, Johannesburg when President Mandela parked so much baggage from the past when emerging from the tunnel to greet both teams, wearing the No 6 Springbok jersey of the captain Francois Pienaar.
Destiny dictated that South Africa would somehow emerge victorious against a superior New Zealand side, with unsubstantiated claims from the defeated finalists that they were deliberate victims of food poisoning on the Thursday evening before the final. Fact or fiction? We will never know for certain, even if a number of All Blacks who played that day (that I have spoken to) since remain absolutely convinced.
What that famous victory confirmed for a public not exactly over-endowed with modesty was that they had reclaimed their rightful place at the top of the international rugby tree after over a decade in isolation.
Their status as undisputed world champions didn’t last long. If that historic first-ever series win on South African soil for New Zealand 12 months later dented their superiority complex somewhat, a most unlikely and unexpected win for the Lions here in 1997 registered a far greater blow to their pride.
The foundations for that incredible series win, against the odds, was posted by an extraordinary victory in the opening test at the traditional home of rugby here in Cape Town, at Newlands Stadium, which unfortunately, is due for demolition in the not-too- distant future.
That opening win propelled the tourists to even greater heights the following week in Kings Park, Durban when, amid warnings about the Springboks coming out like men possessed — a theme that’s repeating itself once again since the final whistle here last Saturday — the Lions won by three points, despite the Sprinboks scoring three tries to the Lions’ nil.
Failure to pick a front-line goal kicker — the Springboks missed all three conversions and a further two penalties that day — cost them dearly, with Neil Jenkins, tucked away at full back specifically to carry out that role for the Lions, landing all five of his penalties and Jeremy Guscott’s iconic drop goal securing the spoils.
The fact that South Africa never sought to test Jenkins under the high ball in his primary duties at full back beggared belief. In the aftermath of that tour, Jenkins lasted just one game for Wales with the No15 on his back in the following Five Nations campaign after being horrifically exposed by England. Irrelevant at that stage, the Lions had a series win for the ages.
Twelve years later, under the captaincy of Paul O Connell, the Lions came up short by the tiniest of margins with a Morne Steyn penalty at the death swinging the second test and the series the way of the hosts. On that occasion, the fatal blow was landed in the first test back in Durban when the Lions pack was shredded in the scrum. The Springboks were far superior that day but left the door open when substituting a number of key players, including captain John Smit, prematurely. Things got so tight in the final quarter, they had to manufacture a situation to get Smit’s leadership qualities back on the field.
Despite losing, two late second half tries by the Lions generated sufficient belief within the squad that once they sorted out the scrum, which they did, they had the ammunition to turn the tide. In the most brutal test match I’ve ever witnessed, the Boks prevailed at the death.
In both series wins, the momentum generated by winning the first test proved pivotal. However, as I know only too well having been part of a Lions squad that won a series in Australia in 1989 having lost the first test and as manager back in Wallaby country in 2001 that lost a series having won the opening test, sprinting into a one-nil lead, despite the obvious feelgood factor, is no guarantee of success.
Gatland will be very conscious of the fact that he’s now in a brilliant position to finish off the series before the Springboks rediscover their true form. With so little international exposure of late, they are bound to improve with every outing. He will also be on the lookout for any hint of complacency that might, even subconsciously, have infiltrated his troops.
With that in mind, I’m not in the least surprised that he has decided to freshen things up and keep the players on their toes by making three alterations to the side that successfully negotiated the opening test. All three changes announced by Gatland on Tuesday can be traced directly to issues that surfaced last weekend.
The most obvious one focused on the midfield combination with Elliot Daly struggling to survive the physical examination imposed by his opposite number, the grossly underrated Lukhanyo Am. Chris Harris was unlucky not to start last time out, as was Bundee Aki, but the Scot is now presented with his chance to form a more balanced pairing with Robbie Henshaw.
Conor Murray’s recall was not unexpected in that his experience and kicking game may prove key next time out, even if Ali Price had a decent outing in the first test. Mako Vunipola seized on his opportunity off the bench, having originally been left out of a matchday test squad for the first time on his third Lions tour, with a more convincing scrummaging performance than starting loosehead Rory Sutherland.
On the other side of town, the Springbok camp responded to the Lions deliberations with three changes to their starting side along with two more on the bench. Also interesting is the decision to revert to a 6/2 split between forwards and backs on the bench. No disguising what their intentions are.
The introduction of Leicester Tigers hard carrying No 8 Jasper Wiese was highly anticipated as Kwagga Smith, more at home on the flank, struggled badly last Saturday. Despite winning his first cap against Georgia a few weeks ago, Wiese was always likely to start given he is a more like-for-like replacement for the injured Duane Vermeulen. He will be tasked with challenging the gain line with his explosive carries and being more solid in the receipt of restarts.
With both camps declaring their hand early in the week, the battlelines have been drawn. The pressure on Rassie Erasmus and Jack Nienaber has been mounting all week as a nervous Springbok following demands a response. Gatland and his coaching team are in the ascendancy. The challenge between now and Saturday is to stay there.