Build-up, Bomb Squad and back-row selection feature in Jon Cardinelli’s latest column from South Africa


Off-field drama selling Lions series

Two weeks ago, many asked whether the British & Irish Lions 2021 series should proceed given the Covid-19 situation in South Africa and the violent protests in parts of Gauteng.

Since the tour has moved to Cape Town, both sets of coaches have gone out of their way to sell the drama and – as was evident in the first and second Tests – apply the pressure to the officials.

It could be argued that the noise coming out of the Lions camp on the eve of the first match – over the appointment of a South African TMO – had a bearing on the decisions.

Just as it could be said that Rassie Erasmus succeeded in influencing Ben O’Keeffe ahead of the second Test after attending a virtual press conference to air his grievances and producing a detailed and scathing analysis of Nic Berry’s first Test performance.

Related: South Africa set up Lions series decider

Who was right and who was wrong has been debated at length. What we know for certain is that the series has not wanted for colour and drama, and that both sides are doing everything within their power to gain an advantage.

To recap, this series, which is staged once every 12 years in South Africa, is being played in empty stadiums. We haven’t experienced the sea of red filling the grounds with their unique banter and chanting. We haven’t experienced the roar that usually punctuates each Springbok try or tackle – or indeed the noise that calls attention to every potential transgression. In that sense, the series has been devoid of energy and life.

And yet, thanks in large part to the comments in the media, there’s been an edge to this series that has made it truly compelling.

The lead-up to the third Test promises to be even crazier, and the hype is certain to have a bearing on how the decider, which will be akin to a World Cup final, plays out.

Crime and punishment… Or lack thereof

Saturday’s match was fiercely physical. The off-the-ball scuffles contributed to a stop-start contest, and to a first half that dragged on for 63 minutes.

Duhan van der Merwe was yellow-carded for tripping Cheslin Kolbe. Kolbe was yellow-carded for a reckless aerial challenge on Conor Murray – and was, upon further reflection, lucky not to receive red.

There were many more incidents across the game that warranted further scrutiny if not further sanction. In the hours that followed the match, numerous images and video clips were posted across social media highlighting where players from both teams had crossed the line.

On Sunday, Stuart Hogg released a statement responding to an allegation that he had bitten opposite number Willie le Roux.

“I would never bite an opponent and I am annoyed and upset by this unsubstantiated accusation,” Hogg said. “I’ve always been proud of playing rugby in the spirit of the game.”

Related: Stuart Hogg denies biting Willie le Roux

In the 65th minute, the host broadcaster showed Maro Itoje kneeling on the throat of Damian de Allende while the Bok centre was on the ground. The incident wasn’t referred to the TMO.

Referee Ben O’Keeffe was praised for the way he handled the captains. Watching the game again, however, the officials appear to have either missed several foul play incidents or been reluctant to mete out serious punishment. Having said that, only Kyle Sinckler has been cited.

Related: Kyle Sinckler cited for alleged bite

Bomb Squad explodes into life

Despite the off-field controversies and the on-field sparring, there were some bright moments where both teams flexed their tactical muscles.

The first-half arm-wrestle was reminiscent of Wales’ turgid battle with South Africa in the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final. And for a long time, it felt like the Lions – who dominated the lineout and gain-line during this period – had the upper hand.

The Boks stayed in the fight – figuratively and occasionally literally – for what seemed like an eternity. While a few big calls went their way, they showed remarkable resolve under pressure.

The last-ditch tackle by Siya Kolisi on Robbie Henshaw, which dislodged the ball an instant before the Lions centre had a chance to place it, summed up the first-half effort.

The Boks were hanging on. The Boks were desperate.

Everything changed after half-time. The Lions started to lose steam as well as composure. The Boks, galvanised by a six-two bench, grew stronger and more assured as the second half progressed.

Lood de Jager was the catalyst for an improved performance at the lineout and maul. The ploy to field two fetchers in Kwagga Smith and Marco van Staden paid off handsomely.

If the first half felt like the World Cup semi-final, the second resembled the decider between England and South Africa.

The Boks applied the pressure via the forwards and then converted their chances on goal via Handré Pollard. The Boks deserved to win, but it’s remarkable that they maintained their momentum throughout the second stanza to win by 18 points.

Back-row calls to shape decider

The back row – that is the make-up of the respective combinations – has been a big talking point over the past few months.

Warren Gatland persisted with the same trio in the first two Tests, with mixed results. One wouldn’t be surprised to see Taulupe Faletau getting a start at No 8 in the third and final Test.

Bok coach Jacques Nienaber has had a very different headache. Duane Vermeulen, one of the team’s leaders and the defence captain, broke down with a serious ankle injury ahead of the Lions tour. Since then, the Boks have been trying to plug the gap at No 8 and to strike the right balance across the loose-forward combination.

Kwagga Smith was exposed under the high ball in the second half of the first Test, and replaced in the starting team by Jasper Wiese for the second match. Nienaber may well persist with Wiese at No 8 for the decider, as the bigger concern is who to play at blindside flank.

Lood de Jager impressed from the bench for South Africa (AFP/Getty Images)

Pieter-Steph du Toit left the field with what appeared to be a serious shoulder injury in the 21st minute. The severity of the injury will be confirmed in the coming days, but it seems likely that he will miss the final clash against the Lions.

Franco Mostert moved from lock to blindside flank in the latter stages of the second Test. If du Toit is ruled out, Mostert could start and offer a like-for-like option at the gain-line and the lineout. De Jager, who started at No 5 in the 2019 World Cup final, would slot into the starting second row in that scenario.

Nienaber would have to fill another gap on the bench though. Marco van Staden and Smith made an impact in the second half of Saturday’s game, and should continue to be among a bench that includes six forwards.

Could Vermeulen make an appearance? On Sunday afternoon, the Boks confirmed that the influential No 8 had rejoined the squad. It remains to be seen, though, if he will be fit enough to play against the Lions.

Rynhardt Elstadt – a player who covers lock and flank, and a player who is familiar with the challenge of finals rugby, having won the Champions Cup with Toulouse earlier this year – could provide the missing piece to the puzzle.

It’s been a long and uniquely demanding tour for the Lions players. Gatland will be looking for one final push – especially in the dying stages.

With that in mind, it may not come as a surprise to see the Lions coach following his South African counterpart’s lead and favouring a six-two split on the bench. Tadhg Beirne as well as Hamish Watson may boost the visitors’ breakdown effort late on.

Brace yourself, because one way or another, this series is going to end with a bang.

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