The coach tells Jon Cardinelli how the Springboks dominated the set-piece exchanges in 2009
Gary Gold on facing the British & Irish Lions
The 2009 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa did not pan out as many expected it would. Indeed, Springbok coaches Peter de Villiers, Gary Gold and Dick Muir were left scratching their heads after the Lions announced their starting XV for the first Test in Durban.
Gold worked with London Irish and the Stormers before making the step up to the Springboks coaching team in 2008. In the lead-up to the Lions series in South Africa, De Villiers asked the forwards specialist to draw on his experience of the northern hemisphere game and predict a likely opposition line-up.
Gold was certain that Andrew Sheridan, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones would start in the front row. He ensured that the Boks coaches and players prepared themselves for that specific challenge.
Lions coach Ian McGeechan, however, selected Gethin Jenkins, Lee Mears and Phil Vickery as his starting front row for the series-shaping opener at Kings Park. And when the news reached the Bok camp, De Villiers and Muir demanded an explanation from their inside man.
“They told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. They asked me how on earth I could have got things so badly wrong,” Gold chuckles after relaying the latter rebuke.
At the time of the exchange, however, he was quick to realise that South Africa had a golden opportunity. “I said, ‘Hang on, I think it’s the Lions who have got things badly wrong here… and we might have a chance against that combination’. We all know how things panned out in that first Test.”
Gold smiles when he’s asked to reflect on a dramatic series that culminated in a 2-1 victory for the Boks. Since then, he’s been at the helm of Newcastle, Bath, Kobelco Steelers, the Sharks, Worcester and is presently the head coach of the USA national side. Helping the Boks beat the Lions in 2009 still ranks among his proudest achievements, though.
The South African performance at the set-pieces in that series is now the stuff of legend. Less has been said about the decision to bench Martyn Williams, an out-and-out fetcher, which Gold believes cost the visitors dearly at the breakdowns.
“We were unapologetic regarding our style of play,” says Gold. “We believed the Experimental Law Variations, introduced in 2008, would work to our advantage. Less possession, more territory was all important. We were very direct, even with our tens, Ruan Pienaar and Morné Steyn.
“One of the biggest untold stories of that Lions’ series was our strength over the ball. John Smit moved to tighthead to accommodate Bismarck du Plessis, who was at the height of his game. Bismarck is so good at the breakdown, and Jean de Villiers is another who doesn’t get enough credit in this area.
“Juan Smith and Schalk Burger were good at the breakdown, but Heinrich Brüssow was world class. So if you looked at our team, we had the potential to put a genuine poacher on the ball at every second or third ruck. We were a threat across the field if the Lions didn’t get their cleaners to the breakdown on time.
“Brüssow picked up turnover penalties for fun. His timing was immaculate. The Lions weren’t prepared for it, and I don’t think they understood the consequences of losing that particular battle on the ground.
“When I think back to that era, the only genuine opensider I can remember playing in the British & Irish isles was Martyn Williams, who was on the Lions bench. We caught them off-guard. To be honest, that wasn’t really part of the plan, but it gave us a chance to win penalties and build scoreboard pressure through our sharpshooters at ten.”
Many of the Boks who featured in that series victory believe that the Lions underestimated the home team.
“Having coached in the northern hemisphere, I know what they think about South African rugby players. They think we’re dumb. They think we’re one-dimensional.
“We are so good when we do that right, though. Nobody looks forward to playing against a one-dimensional South Africa. When the Boks try to play an out-the-back, Kiwi style of rugby – that’s when opposition teams start to lick their lips.
“Warren Gatland is a smart guy who knows South African rugby like the back of his hand. His Lions team should know what to expect in terms of brutality. It would be naive not to expect more of the same – even 12 years later.”
Gold believes that a lot more will be at stake in 2021. “I think Gatland needs to win this series,” he says. “He’s been through ebbs and flows and is coming off an unsuccessful stint with the Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa. He’s settled in New Zealand now, and this is probably his swansong with the northern hemisphere.
“In terms of the South Africans, unless you are Frans Steyn, you’re probably not going to play against the Lions more than once in your lifetime. That puts the magnitude of such a tour into perspective.”
Gary Gold’s South Africa travel tips for Lions fans
The first and third Tests of next year’s tour will be staged in the Johannesburg area. Tourists will have two weeks to take in the sights around Gauteng, and in Mpumalanga, which is several hours drive east. What better opportunity will visitors from Europe have to organise a game drive or two?
“There are options to suit every need, whether you’re after a one-day or a five-day safari,” says Gold. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s a game-changer, if you’ll excuse the pun.
“The world-class resorts in the region certainly add to the experience, and post-Covid there should be some good deals – even more so when you consider the favourable exchange rate.
“The Test series will be staged in late July/early August, which is the middle of winter in South Africa. It can get unbearably hot in that part of the country during summer. Winter, however, is the best time to be in the bush. It gets chilly at night, but it’s usually clear and the sunsets are gorgeous.”
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