Disrupted preparations and possible schedule changes – Jon Cardinelli reports on goings-on in South Africa
Will South Africa be ready for Lions Test series?
If you’re not a coach, player or journalist at the coalface of this Lions 2021 tour, you’ve probably missed a great deal over the past week.
Positive PCR tests, late team changes, match postponements and cancellations, as well as entire squads going into isolation… It’s incredible how the complexion of a tour can change within the space of a few days.
Covid-19 has affected all three international teams involved in the recent matches staged in South Africa. The big question now is whether the Springboks, in particular, will be ready for the three-Test series against the Lions, which begins on 24 July.
Vincent Koch and S’bu Nkosi tested positive upon arrival in the team bubble on 27 June, while a further two players in Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi were isolated after coming into close contact with Nkosi.
A week later, SA Rugby confirmed that Lood de Jager, Frans Malherbe, Marvin Orie, Handré Pollard and Frans Steyn, as well as six members of management, including head coach Jacques Nienaber, had all tested positive. As a result, the entire 45-man squad and management team went into isolation.
On 7 July, SA Rugby announced that the second Test against Georgia had been cancelled. Georgia confirmed that six members of their group had tested positive and stated quite emphatically that they had done everything in their power to follow the Covid protocols.
Key Boks could miss first Lions Test
The Boks and Lions have moved away from Gauteng – the epicentre of South Africa’s third wave of infections. While all three Tests look set to be staged in Cape Town – with the two matches in Covid-hit Johannesburg falling away – it remains to be seen if those games will indeed go ahead.
What will that Bok team look like for the series opener in less than two weeks?
For starters, they will be without RG Snyman for all three matches. The Munster lock suffered significant burns in a fire-pit accident in Ireland last month and will require skin-graft surgery as a result.
No 8 Duane Vermeulen continues to recover from a serious ankle injury, and is unlikely to be available for the first game.
The Boks were unable to train together for a week and more rounds of testing produced further positive results amongst the playing group – Siya Kolisi, Dan du Preez, Ox Nché, Bongi Mbonambi, Scarra Ntubeni and Makazole Mapimpi.
Unsurprisingly, some within the camp are starting to doubt whether the team will be ready for the first Test. Players who test positive must isolate for ten days before they begin their return-to-play protocols, so some may not be ready for the series opener.
On the positive front, those who have tested negative have been cleared to resume training on Sunday. Rassie Erasmus will take charge of sessions with Nienaber still isolating.
Underdone and undermanned South Africa may need reinforcements
The Lions are scheduled to play the South Africa A side – the Boks in all but name – on Wednesday and the Stormers on Saturday. Both of these matches will be staged in Cape Town.
Due to the situation in the Bok camp, however, the games may be swapped to allow the squad more time to train and recover ahead of their fixture against the Lions.
Another option could see two South Africa A games being staged and the match against the Stormers falling away.
Much has been said and written about South Africa’s Covid-enforced absence over the past 20 months. The two Tests against Georgia, as well as the SA A-Lions fixture, were supposed to provide the Boks with an opportunity to gel before facing the Lions in a full-blooded Test.
With the second Test against Georgia cancelled, the SA A fixture has become more important than ever. Nienaber will want to give his strongest available side an opportunity to gain confidence and momentum before the Tests.
The fact that several front-rowers are amongst those who have to isolate, the Boks have called up Sharks hooker Fez Mbatha and Bulls prop Lizo Gqoboka as cover.
Nienaber said: “They have both been playing good rugby for their franchises.
“Lizo has played for the Springboks so we know him well, and Fez has an idea of the expectations of representing the country after playing for the Junior Springboks in the World Rugby U20 Championship, and he attended our Springbok alignment camps earlier in the year.”
“Fez also experienced first-hand what the British & Irish Lions have to offer after facing them in the midweek game on Wednesday, so we are pleased to welcome him to the squad and to see what he will bring on the training field.”
Gregor Townsend concern for Lions
Unlike the Boks, the Lions have not revealed which of their party have tested positive over this past week.
What we know is that 12 players were forced to isolate and that eight late changes were made before kick-off to the fixture against the Sharks this past Wednesday. Warren Gatland was forced to name seven forwards and only one back, Finn Russell, on his bench.
Since then, it’s emerged that Russell has sustained an Achilles injury and is in doubt for the first Test. Marcus Smith – who won his second cap for England against Canada this past Saturday – will join the Lions squad as injury cover.
Of more concern is the situation regarding Lions attack coach Gregor Townsend.
While the Lions were cleared to play the Sharks for a second time (an outbreak within the Bulls camp had forced the scheduled opponents to withdraw) on Saturday after further PCR tests produced negative results, a key member of their coaching staff did not travel with the team to Loftus Versfeld, just as he hadn’t be present at the first Sharks fixture.
Townsend has been forced to isolate at the team hotel in Johannesburg, along with two other members of staff and one player.
He will continue to contribute via Zoom until he is able to join Gatland and company in Cape Town at a later stage. Neil Jenkins, the kicking and skills coach, has been asked to fulfil Townsend’s role for the next game in Cape Town.
Lions better placed than Boks
Perhaps the Lions should be grateful that, despite all the disruptions, they have completed four matches to date.
While there have been some horribly one-sided tour contests, the Lions have every right to feel that their preparations for the Test series are on track.
Contrast the situation at the Lions with that in the Bok camp – where the players have been unable to train let alone play. It’s clear that the tourists are better placed ahead of the all-important Tests.
What’s more, unless there are serious Covid-related setbacks, Gatland will have two more matches to experiment with various combinations.
Josh Adams scored four tries in the first hit-out against the Sharks at Ellis Park. Owen Farrell looked the part at No 10, while the visitors produced another slick performance at the lineout.
Apart from an early scrum wobble where Mako Vunipola struggled to keep his footing, the Lions ran out convincing 54-7 winners.
The performance at Ellis Park was particularly impressive in the context of the late changes. The quality of the opposition, however, left a lot to be desired.
When SA Rugby confirmed that the Sharks would replace the Bulls as the Lions’ next opponents at Loftus on 10 July, many feared another one-sided massacre.
The final scoreline of 71-31 doesn’t tell the story of what was – at least for 46 minutes – the most competitive fixture of the tour.
The Sharks competed fiercely at the breakdown and rushed off the line to rattle the Lions’ ball-carriers. When the visitors dropped the ball or threw a flat pass under pressure, the Sharks swooped to score on the other side of the field.
The game was in the balance before Sharks scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse was sent off for thrusting an elbow into the head of Liam Williams. Predictably, the Sharks fell apart thereafter, conceding 45 points while Hendrikse was off the field.
Tadhg Beirne thrived in a more physical contest, while Williams was at his imperious best under the high ball. Werner Kok, playing at No 13, was the standout for the Sharks, while captain Phepsi Buthelezi set a terrific physical example at the gainline.
The first 46 minutes highlighted the fact that the Lions are not the finished article. Not for the first time on this tour, their defence was exposed in the wider channels. When they failed to make inroads through their forwards, the back-line attack stuttered and offered the opposition too many counter-attacking opportunities.
It will be interesting to see how they adjust in the coming week against teams who will take a leaf out of the Sharks’ book. The Boks were the best defensive team at the 2019 Rugby World Cup and have some of the best counter-attacking players – Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux et al – in the game.
That said, it remains to be seen how quickly the Boks – under the banner of the SA A side – can settle and rediscover their collective mojo.
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