The Springboks triumphed over the British & Irish Lions 2-1 in a closely-fought series. Will a composite team reflect this parity?
Picking a Lions v South Africa Combined XV
The dust has settled on a British & Irish Lions series which, although not filled with wonderful running rugby, stayed in the balance until the final moments of the third Test.
Amidst such closely-fought contests, which polarised rugby fans in an unprecedented manner, we’ve tried to find accord and bring the two teams together.
A Lions v South Africa Combined XV
Full-back – Willie le Roux
One of the most successful players under the box-kicking assault, and beautifully read Lukhanyo Am’s mind to set up Cheslin Kolbe’s crucial third Test try. A marginal offside decision away from scoring in the first Test.
Plays a pivotal role in this side as the second distributor, mainly manifested in this series through well-weighted up-and-unders.
For the Lions, Stuart Hogg’s aerial travails were evident, while Liam Williams, in one Test, made two pivotal mistakes – failing to put away Josh Adams down the right and missing a crucial tackle on Kolbe.
Right wing – Cheslin Kolbe
Didn’t get many chances, but brutally clinical when one appeared.
Always up for the fight defensively, especially against the larger Duhan van der Merwe, but lucky not to have been sent off in the second Test.
Outside-centre – Lukhanyo Am
The standout player of the South Africa A game, Am carried his form through to the Test series proper to cement his reputation as the best defensive centre in world rugby. Set the tone of the series with a bone-shuddering hit on Elliot Daly.
Make no mistake though, these compliments are no slight on his attacking abilities. He scored in the second Test, but his most crucial intervention came in the third when he cannily exploited broken field to set Wille le Roux free. A Test series win was his reward.
Inside-centre – Damian de Allende
Brilliant at cleaning up mess. Given scraps in attack, positioned as a fulcrum in defence, and rose to both challenges superbly. Has added a Brian O’Driscoll-esque jackaling ability to his game.
His place was widely questioned before the 2019 Rugby World Cup – less than ten Tests later, he is now undroppable.
Robbie Henshaw – by a distance – was the best Lions back and can consider himself unlucky. Ultimately, though, I couldn’t leave out either of the South African pair.
Left wing – Makazole Mapimpi
Duhan van der Merwe nearly made this team – the Scot played all three Tests, made metres (particularly in the final Test), and also severely inhibited South Africa’s aerial ability.
However, Mapimpi was one of South Africa’s unsung heroes. Probably the most assured player in the air, set up a try for Faf de Klerk in the first Test and scored himself in the second.
Has now scored 15 tries in 17 Test appearances and too often goes unnoticed amidst Kolbe’s flashiness.
Fly-half – Handré Pollard
Finn Russell flashed his brilliance in the final Test, but this is Pollard’s crown. Tactically astute, and a true triple-threat ‘run, pass, kick’ fly-half who takes the ball flat to the line. His kicks lay behind South Africa’s best attacking moments.
Really impressive in the air, often charged with dropping deep to take box-kicks. Dan Biggar is a master of this skill, but he was outshone by Pollard.
Missed a few kicks, but still reached 500 points for South Africa during the series, just the third Springbok to ever do so.
Scrum-half – Faf de Klerk
Ali Price kicked well in the first and third Tests, but de Klerk was the standout nine of the series. A threaded grubber for Lukhanyo Am to score was the highlight, but the Sale scrum-half was consistently his physical and abrasive best.
Injured for the third Test – and there is a significant gap between his talents and those of replacements Cobus Reinach and Herschel Jantjies. Were the Lions’ third Test aerial improvements a result of personnel changes in the back three, or the absence of de Klerk’s box kicks?
Loosehead prop – Trevor Nyakane
Coming off the bench in the second and third Tests, Nyakane only played 39 minutes at loosehead after starting the first Test at tighthead. Still, he is one of South Africa’s players of the series.
Impressively covers both sides of the scrum and won four crucial penalties over the course of the series, including closing out the third Test.
The series is a just reward for a player who lost his mother at a young age, was doubted by Heyneke Meyer and was forced home early from the 2019 Rugby World Cup with injury.
Hooker – Bongi Mbonambi
Possibly the best hooker in the world right now, battling with Codie Taylor and Julien Marchand. Gets through so much work in the loose, while his lineout throwing was impeccable, save for one mistake in the third Test.
A real leader in the South African pack, having ripped the shirt off the back of the much-hyped Malcolm Marx in the build-up to the last Rugby World Cup.
Luke Cowan-Dickie will return from the tour with his reputation enhanced, but Bongi did the basics better.
Tighthead prop – Frans Malherbe
It was tempting to pick Tadhg Furlong, but I don’t think it’s possible to watch the Test series and not select an all-Springbok front-row. Nyakane started the first Test at tighthead, but Malherbe has been superb for the rest of the series.
He’s amongst South Africa’s top three forward performers for both tackles made and rucks hit. At his destructive best against Mako Vunipola in the second Test, but one of the battles of the summer was between him and Wyn Jones in the first half of the decider. Won a crucial penalty on 34 minutes to bring South Africa to 10-6.
MORE ON THE LIONS SERIES
Jon Cardinelli reflects on an unprecedented series in…
Morne Steyn's late kick brings heartache for the…
Lock – Maro Itoje
It wouldn’t be a Lions v South Africa Combined XV until a Lion made the team!
Itoje was his usual ebullient self – and cut out much of the indiscipline which marred his Six Nations. Won Man of the Match in the first Test, and drove the Lions forward with a big carrying performance in the third Test.
Will likely go on a third Lions tour in 2025 and is one of the favourites to captain the side.
Lock – Eben Etzebeth
A big choice to be made between Etzebeth and Franco Mostert. However, despite the presence of Siya Kolisi, Etzebeth dictated the mood of the series’ dominant pack.
The Toulon lock was unplayable in the second Test while Mostert – if there can be any criticism – perhaps gave away a few too many penalties. Won some crucial turnovers in the Springboks’ 19-16 third Test victory.
Blindside flanker – Courtney Lawes
Another position where Mostert could have been chosen, with the South African having moved to blindside – a position in which he does not specialise – to accommodate the introduction of Lood de Jager. It was the move which decided the second Test, and he went well again in the decider.
However, alongside Itoje and Henshaw, Lawes was one of the Lions’ best performers in the Test series, having been a surprise selection for the touring party – the 37th man in the squad.
Made 55 tackles during the tour – more than any other Lion. So unlucky to give away the deciding penalty after rolling north-south rather than east-west.
Pivotally, he was also the key lineout jumper in the side – and gave the Lions parity in an area where they were expected to struggle.
Openside flanker – Siya Kolisi
Joins a select list of greats including John Smit, Sean Fitzpatrick and Martin Johnson as players who have captained their sides to both Rugby World Cup and Lions glory.
Perhaps the most important on-pitch moment came during the second Test, when he prevented the Lions from going into half-time with a 13-6 lead after holding up Henshaw over the line.
After showing up big against South Africa A, Tom Curry was slightly quieter than his usual high standards during the Test series.
No 8 – Jack Conan
After the 2017 series saw a titanic battle between Kieran Read and Taulupe Faletau, No 8 wasn’t the most competitive position during the 2021 tour, as Conan did battle with Kwagga Smith and Jasper Wiese.
Both Springboks made mistakes, especially off kick return, and while Wiese’s physicality was particularly impressive during spells of the third Test, Conan’s consistency sees him selected.
Made a stack of carries throughout the Test series – while he didn’t miss a single one of his 48 tackles during the tour. Quick and secure with a low centre of gravity, he fitted the role of edge carrier beautifully.
What do you think of this team? Who would make your Lions v South Africa combined XV? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch via social media.
Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.