The cloud of Covid, mind games and lessons in defeat all feature in Jon Cardinelli’s latest column from South Africa
Which Springboks will be fit to face Lions?
There’s nowhere to hide at a ground bereft of 55,000 screaming fans. This past week, the players and coaches have been easy to spot – and in some instances, easy to hear – from their positions in the Cape Town Stadium stands.
The extended Springboks squad was in attendance for both South Africa A fixtures at the venue. On Saturday, it was particularly interesting to note which of the Covid-affected players had returned to the group and, after considering the return-to-play protocols and attempting a few rudimentary calculations, who might be available for the first Test against the British & Irish Lions 2021 squad on 24 July.
South Africa captain Siya Kolisi, first-choice hooker Bongi Mbonambi and star winger Makazole Mapimpi were the glaring absences. Once they have completed the mandatory ten-day period of isolation in Johannesburg, they will rejoin the squad (Mbonambi did this on Sunday). Thereafter, as coach Jacques Nienaber did his best to explain without prompting a panic, they will undergo another seven-day programme to determine whether they are fit and healthy enough to play.
Perhaps the Boks should be encouraged by the fact that most of the players that were sidelined by the virus have already returned to the group in Cape Town.
On Saturday, first-choice players such as fly-half Handré Pollard, tighthead Frans Malherbe and lock Lood de Jager, as well as utility back Frans Steyn, appeared to be in high spirits as they cheered and chirped the South African A team from the stands.
It remains to be seen how many of these players will get the green light to play in the first Test. Nienaber may rush a few of his first-choice stars back despite a lack of game time.
Pollard, for example, offers the Boks more options than second-choice pivot Elton Jantjies, while there’s still a question over the veteran Morné Steyn, who hasn’t played Test rugby since 2016.
Lions and Boks take lessons from shock defeats
The preliminary phase of the tour has come to a close, and the Lions have racked up four wins and one defeat.
After the 17-13 loss to the South Africa A side in Cape Town on Wednesday, coach Warren Gatland said that the Lions have learnt a great deal about the strength of the South Africans – as the team that represented South Africa A included 11 players from the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. What’s more, the A team employed a familiar approach that relied on aggressive defence and accurate tactical kicking.
Most of the Boks who featured in the match on Wednesday watched the next South Africa A fixture from the stands. The Lions players and coaches, seated on the opposite side of the tunnel, were also in attendance when Jake White’s Bulls recorded a shock 17-14 win against a lacklustre South Africa A team.
Former Bok fly-half Johan Goosen and his forwards inspired a dramatic comeback, and as the momentum swung in the Bulls’ favour, the bench became more vocal.
Up in the stands, Faf de Klerk paced nervously and lamented each dropped ball or infringement by his team. In the South African coaching box, the expletives flowed thick and fast as the men in green and gold blew opportunity after opportunity.
The Bulls celebrated wildly after the final whistle, while the South Africa A players dropped their heads. Nienaber said later that he was too emotional to make a clear assessment of individual performances, and that the team would have much to rectify ahead of the first Test.
To be fair, Nienaber picked a host of new players and untried combinations for the sake of boosting the match fitness across the squad. The individuals may benefit from the opportunity down the line, but for now it’s evident how inexperienced and unprepared some of the second- and third-choice players are for the challenge to come.
Mind games move into overdrive
Earlier in the week, director of rugby Rassie Erasmus took control of the Boks in Cape Town while Nienaber was still completing his ten-day period of quarantine.
When addressing the media, Erasmus took every opportunity he could to unsettle the Lions coaches – and at one point went as far to suggest that the Lions may be running scared if they didn’t agree to a second match against the South Africa A side in Cape Town.
Never one to back down, Gatland returned serve. He poked fun at the fact that Erasmus had assumed the waterboy duties for the local team.
And in the wake of the match on Wednesday night, the Lions coach took issue with Faf de Klerk’s reckless tackle attempt on Josh Navidi. Gatland felt that the scrum-half should have been shown a red card instead of a yellow.
Erasmus logged onto Twitter thereafter and highlighted several incidents where a Lions player had made contact with the head of a South African ball-carrier. Quite predictably, serial-offender Owen Farrell was one of the Lions culprits.
When Nienaber was asked about Erasmus’s social media posts, he pleaded ignorance. Gatland subsequently admitted that the pre-game verbals were all part of the show, and that he expected a few more barbs in the lead-up to the first match.
Banter aside, one has to ask how these incidents may indeed shape the outcome of the Tests.
Sonny Bill Williams was sent off for a high challenge in the second match of the series staged in New Zealand four years ago. While the 14-man All Blacks fought hard to stay in the contest, the Lions managed to win the game and level the series.
As Erasmus stated in one of his social media posts, the laws won’t be altered in the coming weeks, and all we can hope for at this point is a consistent application of those laws by the men in the middle.
Cowan-Dickie’s stock soars, Smith sizzles, AWJ returns
South Africa A gave the Lions a good physical workout on Wednesday night. The Stormers failed to mount the same physical and tactical challenge three days later, and, as Gatland admitted afterwards, little should be read into the 49-3 result.
The Lions do appear to be playing with more confidence though, and it’s hard to deny that some individuals are peaking at the right time.
Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie was a menace at the breakdown and nothing short of explosive in open play. Flanker Hamish Watson contributed with another influential performance at the rucks and caused the Stormers defence all sorts of problems with ball in hand.
Fly-half Marcus Smith, who joined the squad only six days earlier as injury cover for Finn Russell, enjoyed a Lions debut to remember. A series of clever inside passes and cross-kicks lent a new dimension to the Lions’ attack.
While the quality of the opposition wasn’t as strong as it was on Wednesday evening, Smith certainly proved that he may be able to offer the tourists something different in a Test-match setting.
The game against the Stormers also witnessed the return of one of the Lions’ most important players and leaders. Alun Wyn Jones has completed a miracle recovery from a shoulder injury to rejoin the squad in South Africa. Gatland rushed him into the match-day squad on Saturday to determine if the veteran lock was ready to play against the Boks.
Jones came off the bench to produce a workmanlike performance in the latter stages. Afterwards, Gatland suggested that Jones had proved a point with regard to his fitness and that he may even been considered to lead the team against the Boks.
Brace for a surprise
So what have we learnt over the past three weeks in terms of both teams? And what have we missed?
Some might suggest that both teams have shown their respective hands. The more learned commentators, however, have observed that the Boks as well as the Lions are yet to play all their tactical cards.
The mind games that have played out in the media have been secondary to the mind games that have played out on the fields of Gauteng and Cape Town over the past three weeks.
Come Saturday, we will see how much Gatland, in particular, has been holding back and whether either team can adapt to an unforeseen approach.
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