Robbie Henshaw knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of a ruthless Springbok backlash and it is enough for the British & Irish Lion to know the tourists have to be ready for anything in Saturday evening’s second Test.
Any doubt that the Springboks will be pumped up for this following last Saturday’s 22-17 defeat at Cape Town Stadium in the series opener has been dispelled by the ongoing war of words between the camps over match officials, stoked further on Friday by World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi’s comments that he felt disrespected by Nic Berry, the first Test referee.
Yet Henshaw perceives the expected backlash from the Boks in strictly sporting terms and has personal experience to fall back on when imagining what that response may look like.
The Leinster centre was part of Joe Schmidt’s squad here in 2016 when Ireland made history with their first Test win on South African soil at Newlands in that series opener before losing the next two, Irish fortunes changing dramatically in the second Test at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park. Ireland went from 1-0 up and 19-3 ahead at the interval to losing 32-26 and then going down 19-13 in the decider back at sea level in Port Elizabeth.
“I know it’s going to be a massive challenge for us again,” Henshaw said. “They’re going to be emotionally driven. After the last game, they were saying that when their backs are to the wall, they’re a dangerous team.
“I know that personally from playing here in 2016 when we beat them in the first Test and they came back and managed to overturn us to win the series.
“So they are massively dangerous and they are going to be well up for it. We need to be ready to match their power and the fire they’re going to bring.”
Drilling down into the lessons of 2016, the centre agreed it was a warning for the Lions.
“Massively. I remember (Damian) de Allende scoring a try after that Ruan Combrinck break down the right-hand side. It just shows their physicality. They can pull something out of nothing if you're not switched on.
“If you fall off or you're not ready for a hit they are able to run over you. That was a big thing that stood out. From the First Test we played down at Cape Town and then we went up to Jo'burg. I'm not sure if the altitude had an effect – we all felt great in the game – it was just probably a mental thing. We just slipped up and you could feel the change in energy.
“It just stands out to me because it was a bit of a different game, to be honest, it was more of a running game, the first game. Then we flew it in the first half of the second Test but the Springboks caught up and overturned us.
"Then it went on to the third Test and they beat us quite narrowly. I just think it stands out to me that they will come back from an upset and we need to be ready for that. We need to be across our work and ready for them to bring something different.
“They might try to play more and give their dangerous men more touches on the ball, so we need to be ready for that. I’d say they’re going to bring something different and that’s what we’re going into it thinking – that there could be trick plays; things we haven’t seen. We’re going to be ready for that.”
That is the Springboks but the Lions have plenty to play for themselves, going into this game with a 1-0 series lead and looking to clinch the series at the first time of asking on Saturday.
“There’s a huge onus on us to go out there and back it up,” Henshaw said. “We know that last week wasn’t perfect in any sense. It was a real arm-wrestle. They won the first half and we came back (from 12-3 down at the interval) and overturned them but there’s definitely room for improvement on our side.
“We’ll be looking to execute and take our chances when they come and keep the pressure on them. We have to bring the level of our performance up again.”
As the backline defensive leader, Henshaw is key to the Lions' prospects of a series victory that would bolster the case for Warren Gatland as the tourists’ most successful head coach following his 2013 success in Australia and the 2017 draw with New Zealand.
The Irishman knows how much that series win would mean, especially if they get the job done on Saturday.
“It would be massive. Everyone knows we are in such a great position at the moment and it's in our hands to go out and back it up. It's going to be very tough but it would be unbelievable to have it wrapped up in two games.”