There is talk of the Test series moving completely to Cape Town
Could Lions venue change boost chances of victory?
We are now deep into the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa, with matches against the Sigma Lions and Sharks (twice) all played on the Highveld. But during those matches in Johannesburg and Pretoria, the Lions had to set up their bubble in the Gauteng region, where Covid-19 has taken a firm grip.
The Lions have now decamped to Cape Town to play two more tour matches and the first Test. Lions boss Warren Gatland has spoken of his hope that all the remaining fixtures – including the final two Tests against the Springboks, currently scheduled to be played in Johannesburg – end up being going ahead in Cape Town. The South African Rugby Union, it is understood, would rather maintain the existing match schedule.
But would such a venue switch benefit the Lions in their quest to win a series?
Play in Jo’burg or Pretoria and you’ve got to contend with the altitude, writes features editor Alan Dymock. In a recent issue of our mag, former Lions head of performance Adam Beard (now of the Chicago Cubs) broke down what altitude can do to your physical output.
“As you travel up and increase elevation, the barometric pressure decreases, making it harder for the body to utilise the available oxygen,” he explained. “This is especially true when high fitness demands are required in sports such as rugby. Fatigue and the rate of fatigue is increased at altitude and this is shown within players who are not acclimatised to playing in this lower-oxygen environment.
“Also, if you also take into consideration the effects of the ball traveling further and at greater speeds due to less air resistance at altitude, then a very hard environment – Test rugby – just got harder.”
The Lions have been preparing for this, using altitude chambers and masks and certain training methods. But if you could cut out the issue altogether, you would want to, wouldn’t you?
Then of course there is the other edges you can get, away from the physical.
Johannesburg is seen by many as the spiritual home of the Boks. And if you look at the above graphic from the brilliant Russ Petty, you will see that in all of the venues South Africa have played in at home since the Lions tours of 1997 and 2009, Jo’burg stands out as their natural home and somewhere they thrive.
Since 2010 they have had a 64% win rate in Jo’burg. Since 1998 it’s 74%. Rates might be better elsewhere with fewer Tests played, but it is about the desire to return there time and again.
If you look at the games that have been played from 2010 onwards too, it stands out that the Springboks have lost the last three on the spin in Cape Town, while they have won their last four in Johannesburg. Some of those matches across the two venues were part of the same series, sure, and you have to take into account how things can change at the end of a series, but the fact remains that they want to keep the good times rolling in Jo’burg.
In 2021, this is a tour without a red fans pouring over the grounds of South Africa – the Lions go without a roaring support in any stands. With that disadvantage, the team will take any leverage they can find, so if the chance came to move away from the hosts’ preferred venue, it might not be the difference-maker but it is worth finding out if it helps swing things back in the Lions’ favour, even slightly.
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