The Springboks coaches face a juggling act ahead of epic series, with player management paramount. Jon Cardinelli reports

Insight: South Africa’s preparations for Lions tour

Social media exploded this past week after the British & Irish Lions squad for the tour to South Africa was announced. Meanwhile, in far-flung New Zealand, one columnist took aim at the world champions and their rights to the World Rugby No 1 ranking.

This attack on the Springboks sparked such an outrage in the South African community that director of rugby Rassie Erasmus took it upon himself to poke his head above the parapet and fire a missile of his own.

After a long hiatus, during which time the South African coaches have kept largely to themselves, Erasmus has ventured into the digital space in an attempt to set the record straight.

Perhaps this is a taste of things to come. Given the Covid-19 situation in South Africa, it seems more than likely that the banter, cheers and jeers will play out online – and not at the various stadiums around South Africa.

The revised Lions tour 2021 schedule was confirmed on Friday, with Gauteng and Cape Town set to host matches in a bio-secure environment. SA Rugby continues to lobby for live crowds in the three Tests, and it is hoped that venues such as Cape Town Stadium and FNB Stadium will be at 50% capacity.

“It has been a challenging process with dozens of variables to consider but we believe we have arrived at a schedule that minimises the risks associated with the pandemic,” SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux said.

“We are hopeful that restrictions on attendance at sports events will be relaxed but, for the moment, we are planning for an event behind closed doors. If that requirement changes, then we’ll assess the options available and make the necessary decisions based on the restrictions in place.”

South Africa’s preparations for Lions tour

A packed crowd in 2009 – a scene that is unlikely in 2021 (Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Various reports in South Africa have suggested that the Covid-19 situation in this country will worsen over the winter months. In the absence of a viable vaccination programme, health experts are pushing for a return to a stricter lockdown in an attempt to combat an inevitable third wave.

Outdoor gatherings could be limited, and in that scenario matches will continue to be staged behind closed doors. Sports minister Nathi Mthethwa has stated that “lives will not be risked” for the sake of major sporting events.

Perhaps we should be grateful that the tour will take place at all, and that the three-part Test epic will illuminate millions of TV screens around the planet.

The Boks will persist with their smash-mouth brand of rugby and the Lions will attempt to meet that particular challenge head on. Coach Warren Gatland has picked a number of warriors with an appetite for physical destruction, and yet there are a few selections which suggest the tourists might spring a surprise or two.

Established combinations help South Africa 

Both sets of coaches will be hard pressed to prepare their charges for a series that will echo into eternity. The real preparation phase, of course, will begin when the respective players gather for a training camp in June – and even then, the players on duty for their clubs in England and France will not be available until the competitions in Europe have concluded.

In normal circumstances, the Boks – as the more settled side with home-ground advantage – would be heavy favourites. The Covid pandemic as well as the resultant travel restrictions, however, have grounded the world champions for 18 months. They last played together in the Rugby World Cup final on 2 November 2019.

It’s little wonder that some critics are reaching for the low-hanging fruit that is the team’s obvious lack of form. Due to circumstances out of their control, the Boks haven’t had the opportunity to build on what was achieved at the World Cup in Japan.

What the South Africans do have in their favour are established combinations as well as a coaching duo in Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber who specialise in quick fixes.

In early 2018, the Boks were ranked seventh in the world. They went on to become the first individual nation to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand in nine years. In 2019, they ended their Rugby Championship title drought, then beat top sides such as Six Nations champions Wales and England en route to the World Cup title.

The current problem of form – or more accurately, a complete lack of game time at Test level – is minor when compared to the issues that plagued the South African structures in 2016 and 2017.

Georgia ideal warm-up opponents

The Boks were initially expected to host the USA and Italy in a couple of warm-up matches before the Lions series. Given the challenges around travel, plans have changed and Georgia will visit South Africa for a two-Test series.

That might not be the worst outcome for the Boks, who will require some sort of challenge ahead of the ultimate test against the Lions. With respect to the USA, they were never going to push the South Africans in any department. Georgia, on the other hand, should provide the Boks with a valuable workout at the scrums.

England have hosted the feisty Georgians for a series of training sessions in past seasons. South Africans who have played club rugby in France, such as loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff, have often spoken about their bruising set-piece encounters with the combative eastern Europeans.

It’s an experience, and indeed an education, that could serve the Boks well ahead of a series-shaping scrum battle with the Lions.

How Nienaber and Erasmus manage the national squad during this period will be important. The duo will have access to local players after the Rainbow Cup concludes. This group could provide the bulk of the starting XV in the first Test against Georgia.

As stars such as Cheslin Kolbe, Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk and others return from Europe, the team to front the Lions will take shape.

After the two-Test series against Georgia, the Boks may have two further weeks to prepare for the first match against the Lions. Further conditioning and tactical planning during these ‘fallow’ weeks will ensure that the team goes into matches that matter with a clear sense of purpose.

Springboks unlikely to play for franchises against Lions

The first-choice players are unlikely to play for their franchises in tour matches against the Lions. By that point, the Bok coaches should have a clear idea about the preferred match-day squad for the Tests and may be reluctant to risk injuries to star players.

Those who have followed previous tours to South Africa may be disappointed to hear this, as the preliminary clashes are often viewed as mini Tests given the heightened levels of physicality and intensity. That said, it would come as no surprise to see Nienaber releasing fringe players in the greater training squad to the franchises. These players may well force themselves into the Test reckoning at a later stage.

In 2009, Heinrich Brüssow starred for a Cheetahs side that pushed the Lions close in Bloemfontein. The breakdown specialist was subsequently fast-tracked into the Bok team for the first Test, after the incumbent No 6 Schalk Burger was ruled out with injury.

South Africa’s preparations for Lions tour

Heinrich Brüssow is flanked by Juan Smith and Victor Matfield in 2009 (Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Injuries, of course, could well change the course of the tour. Gatland will be hoping that the Lions players come through the back end of the European season unscathed.

Nienaber will have similar concerns as he watches the South Africans competing in the European Champions Cup final, and in the English and French club leagues. The pecking order may change if some of the big names break down during the latter rounds of the Rainbow Cup.

The good news is that both sets of teams boast quality in depth. The coaches are among the best in the business and all indications are that the Test matches could witness a chess battle for the ages.

Again, one would hope that the Covid situation improves over the next two months and that this epic series unfolds in front of a big crowd, rather than in an eerily quiet stadium.

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