Never before has a Lions side carried so many competitive advantages over their hosts into an opening test. At least that’s the way things appear from the outside looking in. We’re about to find out if these perceived gains are real or imaginary.
In selecting 11 starters from the 2019 World Cup final along with 10 more in the matchday squad who saw game time at the tournament in Japan, Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus have dipped into the past in order to shape the future.
With just one international under their belt in 20 months, they really had no other choice. That said, a number of players have been chosen on the basis of deeds past. Team captain Siya Kolise is one of those given his form since moving from the Stormers to the Sharks this season has been very average, not to mention the fact that he was only cleared to train with the squad on Monday having recently contracted Covid.
Given the dearth of quality alternatives available at out-half, Nienaber had little or no option but to run with Handre Pollard. At the top of his game, he’s a quality player but, having been sidelined for nine months with a cruciate knee ligament injury, has accumulated only two starts and two introductions off the bench for Montpellier over the last year.
To compound his issues, having amassed 62 minutes against Georgia, he too contracted Covid and missed the A game against the Lions. It’s very unlikely Pollard will last the course today and his replacement Elton Jantjies, despite having 38 caps, is erratic at best.
For all kinds of reasons this Springbok side is well short of where it needs to be going into a series of this magnitude. It will have to dig deep into the memory back in order to reproduce the accuracy, cohesiveness and clinical edge that was to the fore when they were crowned world champions. What they will bring in abundance is unbridled passion and manic physicality. Will that be sufficient to come out on top?
The team that Warren Gatland announced a day early on Wednesday is once again laced with controversial calls, not least in the back three where the Scottish pair of Stuart Hogg and Duhan Van Der Merwe have won favour over what I considered two certainties in Liam Williams and Josh Adams.
Coming into the tour, I wondered how Gatland might seek to lift Hogg’s confidence having suffered the ignominy of being left on the Exeter Chiefs bench, on successive Saturdays, for the semi-final and final of the Gallagher Premiership prior to joining the squad late on departure day.
By naming him captain for the games against the Sigma Lions and the Stormers, Gatland solved that issue in one stroke. Hogg responded with two assured performances. Yet there was a reason why Exeter coach Rob Baxter choose to omit him for the business end of the English season, evidently due to concerns surrounding his defensive capabilities.
Given the absolute certainty that South Africa will bombard the back field with aerial missiles, Hogg and Van Der Merwe will be the prime targets. The assured manner with which Williams rules the air offers massive confidence to those around him. I’m not so sure that will be the case with this combination.
I rate Adams as a far superior all-round player to the Scottish winger. Gatland likes the fact that, with his power and size, Van Der Merwe will be used in a variety of positions off his wing to power the Lions over the gain line.
In possession, Van Der Merwe has enjoyed a productive tour. It’s when the ball is put in behind him and when he’s forced to turn or make split-second defensive reads that he tends to lose his way. That hasn’t happened since the opening game against Japan. You can be sure that Nienaber noted his vulnerability in the wide channels that day. Factor in also that standing directly opposite him is the irrepressible Cheslin Kolbe.
Up front Gatland has picked largely on form with Wyn Jones, Luke Cowen-Dickie and Jack Conan all worthy of starting positions. While Tadhg Beirne is decidedly unlucky not to join them, Gatland had clearly earmarked Courtney Lawes to carry out a specific role on the blind side of the scrum from the outset.
The demotion of three proven lieutenants from his 2017 test side in Conor Murray — deemed good enough to take over the captaincy only three weeks ago — Owen Farrell and Williams highlights once again that not only is he capable of adjusting his thought process based on a mix of form and gut instinct, Gatland is not afraid to rock against conventional wisdom.
With a side immeasurably different to what many expected, once again the New Zealander has put his head on the chopping block. One suspects Nienaber and Erasmus were surprised with some of Gatland’s combinations. Things have fallen the Lions way on this tour to date. We are about to find out whether they’ve been duped or have the necessary firepower to take advantage of perceived Springbok shortcomings.
This team has been selected to play at a pace, intensity and tempo that South Africa will find impossible to deal with. The selections of Ali Price over Murray at scrum-half and Elliot Daly in the centre, where he hasn’t started at test level since 2016, are geared towards playing in the wider channels and exploiting the space the Springboks tend to concede in the 15-metre channels.
That however is predicated on generating quick ruck ball, recycled in under three seconds. While the Lions achieved that target in many of the provincial games, the Springboks are so physical at the breakdown it’s unlikely they’ll continue to enjoy that advantage.
Contrary to popular opinion down here, I think the Lions will compete favourably at scrum-time with the Springbok starting front row inferior to the one Nienaber has lined up for the last 30 minutes off the bench. That may well allow the Lions generate a key psychological gain early on, even if they only break even in that scrum contest.
The Lions also boast a very strong line out with the towering presence of Courtney Lawes not only offering quality ball on the Lions throw but also a menacing presence for the Boks to cope with on their deliveries.
The big gamble Gatland has undertaken is in dealing with South Africa’s kicking game. If they don’t deal effectively with that, the gains they achieve elsewhere may prove meaningless. At least if his starting side doesn’t deliver on his pre game thought process, he has some rich pickings to fall back on off the bench.
Proven test match animals such as Williams, Beirne, Murray, Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler and Owen Farrell will be chomping at the bit to prove a point. For once, the Springboks might be undone by a superior bench bomb squad.
The Lions know what’s coming. This Springbok side is programmed to play only one way. The personnel that delivered on Erasmus’s blueprint at the World Cup have been reassembled and tasked with taking up from where they left off against England in the 2019 final.
Erasmus is brilliant when it comes to creating a cause and, with Gatland claiming at Wednesday’s team announcement that the Lions had “dented their ego” when standing up to the Springbok physically in that A game, once again he is poking the bear.
To win this one, the Lions will have to sprint out of the blocks, set the ground rules for which this seismic challenge be contested and, of most importance, build a lead. If the Springboks get their nose in front, they are notoriously difficult to reel back in. Even at their best, which they are clearly short of at present, and because of their limited game plan and approach, when they fall behind, they find it very difficult to chase a game.
With question marks hanging over several of their players in terms of match fitness, recovery from covid and a complete absence of international competition for so long, the Springboks have never been as vulnerable heading into a major tournament or Lions series.
The odds appear stacked in the Lions’ favour entering this one. However, a big caveat for me surrounds some of Gatland’s selections for this historic clash. He has always been a smart selector but this time he is really stretching the boundaries. The Lions hold most of the aces. So much now depends on how the cards unfold.
Speaking of cards, one of a red or yellow variety, brandished by Australian referee Nic Berry, could yet prove the deciding factor in separating the two sides. With so many uncertainties hanging over both camps, we will all be so much wiser after this opening foray.
Fasten your seatbelts.