Jon Cardinelli, our man on the ground in South Africa, talks bio-bubbles, Boks and back-row learnings as he reflects on the opening weekend of the tour
No room for Covid complacency on Lions tour
The country is in the midst of a third wave of infections. On Friday evening, around the same time that the Springboks battled Georgia in an empty Loftus Versfeld stadium, the local government announced that an unprecedented number of daily cases – 24,270 to be exact – had been recorded.
The second and third Tests between the Boks and the Lions, which are both set to be staged at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, may not proceed as planned given that the Gauteng province is at the epicentre of the third wave and accounts for nearly 60% of the country’s coronavirus cases. There are strong indications that the entire three-Test series may be staged in Cape Town, where the Covid-19 situation is less severe.
The question of whether this tour should proceed or not has been asked many times over the past few months. While the fixtures at Loftus and Ellis Park over the weekend were staged without incident, greater concerns regarding the country’s Covid problems and ultimately the threat to future matches will continue to loom until the Lions board the plane back to the northern hemisphere on 8 August.
Every precaution has been taken to keep the Lions as well as the Boks safe and secure in their respective bio-bubbles. And now that the first round of matches is done and dusted – with the Boks overpowering Georgia and the Lions thrashing the local side in Johannesburg, there’s a feeling among tour organisers and administrators that a significant hurdle has been cleared.
The elation and relief of the suits is understandable. The Boks have made their return to Test rugby after a 20-month, pandemic-enforced hiatus. Despite the odds, the Lions tour to South Africa – which will provide SA Rugby with a much-needed financial injection – is finally underway.
But now is not the time for complacency. One would hope that the authorities continue to monitor the situation, especially in Gauteng, and that they take all the necessary steps to keep the players safe and the tour itself alive.
There’s plenty to be excited about from a rugby point of view. While the fans will be absent, the Test matches should serve up some truly epic contests.
PSDT and Fassi sizzle for Springboks
The Springboks blew hot and cold in their first fixture since the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, which was, of course, to be expected. In a sense, they should be grateful that Georgia provided such a stern contest at the scrum and gain-line – at least in the first half.
New coach Jacques Nienaber has had his eye on Sharks full-back Aphelele Fassi for some time. Last year, before the Covid-19 outbreak and resultant lockdown, Nienaber spoke about his plans to play Fassi in the Tests against Scotland and Georgia, which were initially scheduled for July 2020.
Fassi finally made his debut, albeit on the wing, against Georgia at Loftus this past Friday. The 23-year-old scored a try with his first touch, and made the most of every opportunity that came his way. On the other wing, Rosko Specman – a sevens specialist for much of his career – also impressed in his first appearance for the Boks.
South Africa certainly have some depth in the back three when one considers that World Cup-winners Cheslin Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi and S’bu Nkosi will all join the match-day squad in the coming weeks. Yaw Penxe is another superstar on the rise, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him getting a chance before the Tests against the Lions.
Another performance that caught the eye this past Friday was that of Pieter-Steph du Toit. The flanker won the World Cup with South Africa in 2019 and was later named World Rugby Player of the Year. Since then, Du Toit has been to hell and back.
After sustaining a serious injury in a Super Rugby match in early 2020, he was diagnosed with a rare condition and at one stage feared that doctors might have to amputate his leg. When he made a return to competitive rugby earlier this year, many felt that he might not be the same player after going through such an ordeal.
Du Toit allayed those concerns with a series of powerful, tireless performances for the Stormers and Western Province. In his comeback Test against Georgia, he was one of South Africa’s best players at the gain-line and produced some neat touches in attack – such as the pass that unleashed Fassi for the Boks’ first try.
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Lions take lead in back-row race
While Pieter-Steph du Toit as well as Springbok captain Siya Kolisi are getting back to their best in the wake of their respective injuries, questions remain regarding the balance of the Bok back row and their best available No 8. Duane Vermeulen – the Man of the Match in the 2019 World Cup final – is currently recovering from a serious ankle injury.
The Bok back row produced a mixed bag against Georgia on Friday. No 8 Kwagga Smith – another former sevens star – showed his pace off the back of the scrum and was a force in broken play.
There were times when Smith was driven back in contact, though. It’s a concern that Smith is not a like-for-like replacement for Vermeulen, a robust player who thrives in tight physical contests and is one of South Africa’s best breakdown exponents.
Warren Gatland has juggled his options in the back row over the Lions’ past two games in Edinburgh and Johannesburg. What appears to be certain, however, is his preference for a No 6 who can offer options as a powerful ball-carrier, defender and lineout jumper.
Tadhg Beirne fulfilled this role against Japan, while Courtney Lawes delivered the goods in the official tour opener against the Lions.
Hamish Watson is another who began the tour with a bang. Sam Simmonds’s pace and agility was an asset in the latter stages of the game in Jo’burg too.
All that said, it’s still too early to tell where these players stand given the quality of opposition this past Saturday was so poor.
Diluted franchises won’t help Lions’ cause
The Lions scored eight tries in their 56-14 victory over their local namesake on Saturday. Afterwards, Warren Gatland rightly lamented the standard of the opposition, and we’ll have to wait to see whether the Sharks and Bulls will offer a sterner challenge in the coming days.
In an ideal world, local players may have been released from the Bok camp to play for their clubs in a one-off match against the Lions. Given the Covid situation and the establishment of strict bio-secure environments, movement between the national camp and the respective franchises is not possible.
Players aren’t permitted to travel back and forth between their club and the Bok bubble. The risk of contracting the virus, and infecting the rest of the national squad upon their return, is too high.
How different might the franchises look without these restrictions? It’s not uncommon for national coaches to remove key players from preliminary tour matches in order to cotton-wool them for the all-important Tests.
And yet, the current situation has seen Jacques Nienaber picking 46 players – and removing 24 players from the franchises. The local teams have been further depleted when you consider that Bulls stars Kurt-Lee Arendse and Stedman Gans, as well as Stormers centre Ruhan Nel, are currently with the South African Sevens side that’s preparing for the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
What’s more, the decision to stage the tour in two bio-secure environments in Gauteng and Cape Town – rather than play the preliminary matches in separate venues around the country – means that a side like the Sharks will play their ‘home’ game against the Lions in Johannesburg rather than Durban on Wednesday.
The Bulls, who recently won Super Rugby Unlocked, the Currie Cup and the South African division of the Rainbow Cup, are victims of their own success in that four of their top players are with the Boks and two more with the Blitzboks. The Bulls were without these players in the recent Rainbow Cup final, where they were duly hammered by Benetton in Italy.
The Stormers may be strengthened ahead of their fixture against the tourists. Nienaber is expected to reduce the size of the Boks squad after South Africa A face the Lions in Cape Town on 14 July. The Stormers players who are considered surplus to Test series requirements may well be drafted into the Cape franchise’s line-up ahead of the match against the Lions three days later.
Injured big dogs may have their day
Lions fans should be encouraged by the news that Alun Wyn Jones’s shoulder injury is not as bad as first feared. According to Warren Gatland, the inspirational player and captain may well return ahead of the Test matches against the Boks.
South Africa will hope for a similar boost as the Test series draws close. Duane Vermeulen, a massively important figure in the Boks’ system and one of the leaders within the group, recently underwent surgery to an injured ankle and is in a race against time to be fit for the Test series opener on 24 July.
Lood de Jager has made progress with regards to recovering from his own leg injury and may well be back to face the Lions – either in the South Africa A match or in the first Test. It seems likely that the Boks will be without at least one of their World Cup-winning locks, though.
The latest on RG Snyman, one of the Munster starts injured in a fire pit accident, is that he may need skin transplants that rule him out of the Tests. Eben Etzebeth also sustained an injury in the recent battle against Georgia.
In a series of this nature, you’d prefer to see both teams at full strength. Hopefully the aforementioned stars will recover to join their respective teams and make this a Test series to remember.
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