Last weekend’s opening test represented a journey into the unknown for both sides. The uncompetitive nature of the tour, with the Lions only facing one searching test against a strong South African A side that they failed to negotiate, left Warren Gatland in a dilemma.
Gatland had done everything in his power to prepare his side for a searing test against an opponent with even more question marks hanging over them than the tourists.
What we learned from the first test was that the Springboks were far more structured and organised than they were entitled to be after a massively disruptive period leading into that game, not least with their collective training minutes severely compromised due to a number of positive Covid tests in their ranks.
In the circumstances, the Springbok performance in the opening half was really impressive. They dominated the early scrums, unleashed a more effective kicking game and exerted sufficient pressure on the Lions to force them into a concession of penalties which Handre Pollard punished. With a nine-point buffer at the break, they had the Lions exactly where they wanted them.
The difference between victory and defeat last weekend can be traced to Gatland’s ability to effect a major tactical shift during the break. The Lions implemented a more effective kicking game which put the Springboks under so much pressure they conceded eight penalties — the Lions conceded only two — in the second half. He also used his bench more effectively than South Africa.
The introduction of Mako Vunipola and Ken Owens, coupled with a complete change in the Springbok front row at half time, edged the all-important scrum battle in the Lions’ favour. One of the key foundations of the Springbok game, which they had used to good effect in the opening half, was nullified.
It has also served to influence the Springboks selection, promoting both of last weekend’s finishing props Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe to the starting line up. While they are generally acknowledged, now that Tendai Mtawarira has retired, as the two best props in South Africa, they failed miserably to influence the game when introduced last Saturday.
There is now big pressure on that duo to perform. The loss of Ox Nche to injury has also left the Springboks exposed on the loosehead side. The two props on the bench, Vincent Koch and Trevor Nyakane, are both far more comfortable at tight head, even if Nyakane was a loose head originally. With Rory Sutherland and Kyle Sinckler ready to pounce in the second half for the Lions, that marginal difference could prove significant.
While this tour has been extremely challenging, in so many ways, it has presented the tourists with a number of unique advantages over previous campaigns. This is unlikely to be repeated and, as a consequence, it’s vital that Gatland and his coaching team seize on them to close out the series on Saturday.
The first is the fact that the Lions were able to rest up last Sunday after the rigours of the first test without the hassle of packing their bags, hanging around an airport before departing to their next tour destination. On the contrary, they were able to recover in the excellent facilities available at their base in Hermanus and enjoy a well-earned day off.
The second big plus is the fact that, for the first time on a Lions tour, there is no midweek game between the first and second tests. The additional pressure placed on the coaches to prepare a team for that fixture and being seen to be fair to the players who weren’t involved in the first test, is no longer required.
While it must be difficult for players on the periphery of the test side to go so long without a game on tour, there is no doubt that in terms of preparation for a potential series decider, it is a huge plus for the coaching staff to be able to focus all their energies on making further gains for the second test.
Perhaps the biggest bonus for the Lions is the fact that they will not be playing the second and third tests, as scheduled, at altitude in Johannesburg. There is no understanding the importance of that fact. No matter how well you prepare in advance, playing at altitude can hit you like a wall. You get this horrible burning sensation in your lungs that leaves you grasping for air. The South Africans are well used to that and know best how to cope with it. Rassie Erasmus would have seen it as a major competitive advantage playing those two tests on the high veldt. The Springboks rarely lose a test match at Ellis Park. Much to Gatland’s delight — due to the rise in cases of the coronavirus in the Gauteng area — SA Rugby was left with no choice but to declare early last week that all three tests would now be played at sea level in Cape Town.
Most unusual of all, the fact that the Lions have arrived at this pivotal point in the tour without any major injuries beggars belief. I can’t remember that ever happening before. Finn Russell was the only player ruled out before the first test and he is back approaching full fitness. On the flip side, having their inspirational captain Alun Wyn Jones back in harness when it appeared that he had been ruled out after only seven minutes of action in the tour opener against Japan offered a massive lift to the tourists. It is imperative therefore that the Lions grasp this opportunity and use these highly unusual set of circumstances to close the series out on Saturday.
Erasmus has cut a strange figure on this tour, different to the assured, strong character that left such an impact on Munster. While it’s a function of management to remove as much pressure from the players in the build up to these massive games as possible, Gatland and Eddie Jones are past masters at it, Erasmus has certainly succeeded in one thing.
Nobody is talking about the shortcomings of his players. His unprecedented attack on Australian referee Nic Berry, who is involved as one of the two assistant refs on Saturday, has done his team no service. All he has succeeded in doing is put ever more pressure on the officials. Who knows what the eventual outcome of that will be.
The one thing it might help achieve is a siege mentality within the Springbok squad. The players will feel an obligation to support their World Cup-winning coach. The Springboks are desperate and as their former World Cup winning second row Victor Matfield reminded us during the week, “when you’re desperate, you’re dangerous”.
Maro Itoje articulated it better than most when asked to sum up what South Africa would bring to the fight this weekend. He said “they will come harder at us in the scrum, harder at the line out, harder with their kicking game, all with a much higher intensity than last week”.
The Springboks only know one way. They will come hard, direct and aggressive. One after another, their big forwards will come from deep and look to punch penetrative holes, eventually to be seized upon by a very underrated and sadly ignored three quarter line. I think they undersell themselves.
They showed just how sharp and effective they can be from broken play with three second-half tries last weekend, two of which were correctly cancelled by the officials. Given what we have seen Cheslin Kolbe achieve in the colours of Toulouse, it’s a travesty that he only received one pass last time out.
Will the Boks ever seek to match brawn with brains? If they do then the Lions could be in trouble. The centre combination of Damien de Allende and Lukhanyo Am is one of the best in the game. It’s only when you see Am in the flesh that you appreciate just what an effective player he is while on the opposite wing to Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi is an absolute flyer.
To date, the Lions have limited themselves to matching the key strengths the Springboks bring to the fight before looking to pull away through greater fitness, a more impactful bench, and by playing at a higher tempo in the final quarter. If they can hold their own in the physical battle, as they did in the first test, then I believe they might just have too much for the Springboks to cope with.
If on the other hand, the Springboks can sharpen up in attack, bring more accuracy at the restarts and control the territorial game for longer than they were able to do last time out, we may well be heading into a series decider back at the Cape Town Stadium next Saturday.