Everybody’s got an opinion about the best British & Irish Lions XV for the three-Test series in South Africa.
National allegiance aside, there appears to be a consensus among critics and fans regarding the physical and tactical requirements for a unique assignment against the world champions.
Less has been said and written about the make-up of the Springboks team. In a sense, this is to be expected given that South Africa – through no fault of their own – have not played a Test since lifting the Webb Ellis Cup on 2 November 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put paid to all plans to progress – at least on the field of play. In January 2020, new coach Jacques Nienaber spoke about using the matches against Scotland and Georgia to develop a wider squad with the Rugby Championship and subsequent Lions series in mind.
When I caught up with Nienaber again in June 2020 – in the middle of South Africa’s hard lockdown – he used buzzwords like “resilience” and “adaptability” and half-jokingly predicted that the Boks wouldn’t play again until the Lions series in July 2021.
And yet, as the Lions series looms and as Nienaber’s prophecy looks set to come pass, the situation is not nearly as hopeless as it may seem. Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, who remains hands-on with regards to selection and strategy despite stepping down as head coach after the World Cup, should not be underestimated.
Three years ago, many questioned the pair’s decision to leave Munster to coach a Bok side in the midst of a historically bad slump.
Erasmus’s plan to align the franchises was mocked by some, while his claim that the team would bounce back to win the 2019 World Cup was universally dismissed. But the Boks turned things around quickly. They beat England in the series staged in South Africa and went on to end a nine-year drought in New Zealand three months later.
Results weren’t the only priority, though, as Erasmus blooded 19 new players and experimented with a host of different combinations over the course of the 2018 season.
Why are the events of 2018 and early 2019 relevant now? The work done across that period has laid the platform for the Lion series and the subsequent 2023 World Cup.
While the team impressed at the 2019 tournament in Japan and Erasmus’s tactical genius was plain for all to see, it’s in the next World Cup cycle where this group should be at the peak of its powers.
Only three players – Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, Francois Louw and Schalk Brits – have retired since RWC 2019. There have been notable injury concerns since that tournament, with fly-half Handré Pollard, World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit and locks Lood de Jager and RG Snyman all suffering significant setbacks.
South Africa aren’t short of experienced replacements, though. Consider that Marcell Coetzee, André Esterhuizen, the Du Preez twins, Dan and Jan-Luc, and Dillyn Leyds were considered surplus to requirements when the World Cup squad was selected two years ago. They are now among the top-performing club players in the northern hemisphere.
Erasmus exposed a large group of players to international rugby in 2018 and early 2019. Those fringe players will be pushing for further opportunities in the near future. The Sharks trio of Curwin Bosch, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Ox Nche, Bulls forwards Marco van Staden and Jason Jenkins, as well as the Bulls scrum-halves Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier all fall into this category.
Several veterans have returned to South Africa to add another column or two to an already impressive depth chart. Former Munster flank Arno Botha recently won the Currie Cup with the Bulls, while utility back Johan Goosen could make an impression for the Pretoria-based franchise in the upcoming Rainbow Cup.
Morné Steyn, who broke Lions hearts in 2009 after he struck a series-clinching penalty in the second Test, is still winning matches at the age of 36 with his unerring goalkicking. Any one of these men could be plucked out of left field and asked to do a job in the Lions series.
There’s no shortage of younger players pushing for a spot in the wider squad – and indeed the starting XV. Sharks full-back Aphelele Fassi has been tipped as the next big thing for the Boks. Last year, however, during Fassi’s injury-enforced absence, several outside backs rose through the domestic ranks to give Nienaber and Erasmus food for thought.
Sevens stars Rosko Specman, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Stedman Gans caught the eye, as did the Lions centre Wandisile Simelane. Damian Willemse and Warrick Gelant, who were part of the wider squad in Japan yet hardly featured, are ready for more responsibility at Test level.
The names listed above highlight the depth across most positions. That said, there’s no good reason to make wholesale changes to the 23 that won the World Cup final.
Toulouse star Cheslin Kolbe has taken his game forward since the World Cup, and will be the first name on the Bok team sheet this July. Centre Damian de Allende has been in terrific form for Munster, while scrum-half Faf de Klerk continues to sharpen his game while on duty for the ever-improving Sale Sharks.
Locally, centres Lukhanyo Am and Frans Steyn have performed at a consistently high standard since the lockdown was lifted last September.
When Erasmus took the head coaching job in early 2018, he made the point that South Africa have some of the best players in the world. At the time, it was a somewhat contentious statement given the Boks were coming off record losses to New Zealand and Ireland – and occupied seventh place in the World Rugby Rankings.
Three years later, and the quality of South Africa’s individual players and indeed the depth available to the national coach is patent. The competition within the squad has been key to the team’s recent success.
Nienaber and Erasmus are unlikely to play favourites in the Lions series. They will show an appreciation for experience, which as history shows is always significant in a temperamental battle with the Lions, but they will reward domestic form, too.
Erasmus has a penchant for thinking outside the box. In 2018, he backed a new-look side to start against England in the first game of a three-Test series staged in South Africa. Both he and Nienaber understand what it takes to bring a new mix of players together to succeed against top-flight opposition.
The likes of De Klerk and Willie le Roux were recalled ahead of that series against England after spending a year in the international wilderness. Brits was brought out of retirement. Aphiwe Dyantyi, Sbu Nkosi and Snyman were picked in the starting XV to make their Test debuts.
What’s more, Erasmus and Nienaber got players from different races, cultures and backgrounds to work towards a common goal. Siya Kolisi, the country’s first black skipper, took the initial step towards unifying the team and the nation. The series victory marked a turning point for South African rugby.
More recently, Bok assistant coach Felix Jones has been tasked with monitoring the South African players based in Europe. Jones has been liaising with players of interest since RWC 2019.
Alignment camps will be staged for local players in South Africa over the next two months. If all goes to plan, the Boks could play a couple of warm-up Tests, possibly against the USA, before they face Warren Gatland’s team.
It’s hardly an ideal scenario. For some, a dearth of on-field preparation may prove a handy excuse in the event of failure.
The Bok coaches, however, have developed a reputation for making lemonade out of lemons.
Everything has been against the team since Erasmus first came to power in 2018. Somehow they’ve managed to rise to the top of the rankings and win the Rugby Championship and World Cup.
Erasmus and Nienaber are used to working within a quirky South African system that often inhibits rather than helps the national team. They’ve come to expect and embrace the curve balls rather than fear them.The situation regarding the players’ lack of game time may not be as decisive as some have suggested. South Africa defied expectations in 2019, and they still have the means to go toe-to-toe with the Lions in 2021. – Rugby World