‘Boks know what to do … win frontline, physical battle’

After a fortnight of ‘magical’ Test rugby, former Bok captain John Smit believes the Springboks will know exactly what approach is required to achieve success in Saturday’s series decider, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

So, it all comes down to this: one final battle between the Boks and Lions.

More than 10 weeks have passed since the British & Irish Lions first touched down on South African shores. What’s followed has been the most extraordinary tour filled with incredible challenges on and off the field, packed with controversy and talking points, as well as some high-octane rugby.

As expected, the tour has gone to another level ever since the Springboks and Lions began the real business of Test rugby, and ultimately the perfect scenario has played out as this series will go down to a final one-off decider.

Considering all the challenges that have had to be overcome for this tour to go ahead, the third Test should be celebrated, no matter what the outcome.

Smit – who led the Boks to success in the 2009 series against the Lions – said he certainly did not buy this talk that the first two Tests have not produced captivating action.

“The actual rugby we’ve seen I think is to be expected. I think anyone with half a brain would have realised this was not going to be like a Super 14 game where the Chiefs are playing the Hurricanes. I think because of the magnanimity of the event, the lack of playing time by the Boks and not being able to develop further as a team in the last two years, they had to stick to what they know well and what they’ve gone back to, especially in the second Test.

“It’s still been fascinating for me and I don’t think enough has been made of the game of chess that’s gone on. We’ve got a lot to be grateful for. This is a very powerful Lions squad. It’s a World Cup-winning squad of Springboks. [Warren] Gatland is a master, he’s been around for a long time, he’s such a good coach.  Obviously, we’ve got the respect of the Lions guys and then we’ve got Jacques [Nienaber] and Rassie [Erasmus], who themselves created a miracle two years ago.

“We’ve also had this strategical game of chess that’s going on, both on and off the field. Gatland thought he’d maybe get a bit creative in the first half, go wide early, but gets smashed by our defensive system. So he comes in at half time 12-3 down thinking, ‘This is not really what I had in mind. Let’s change it up, let’s go to Bok town and do the physical chase and aerial game’. So, they change their tactics in the second half and beat us at our own game, convincingly.

“The Boks then go back to the drawing board. And then it’s the mind games of Gatland and the TMO in the first week, and Rassie with his antics in the second week, which are well documented. All these things are like pieces of the puzzle as these guys are thinking of their next move for their teams.

“And then the Boks producing a game which was far more accurate and also releasing the Bomb Squad later because obviously they ran out of gas in the first Test so they stretched the starters a bit longer. All of this is going on – it’s coaches, management staff and squads all trying to get ahead of the curve and anticipate the next move.

“So, we’ve been treated to two magical weeks of proper Test-match rugby. I would pick what I’ve seen in the last two weeks rather than a 47-35 scoreline for two weeks in a row.”

In an exclusive interview with SARugbymag.co.za, Smit was asked what advice he would now give the Boks ahead of the third and final Test. He said it would be simple because you ‘know how the Boks are going to play’.

“There’s certain things that make their gameplan work – they need to be on the front foot when it comes to set piece. Their scrum’s got to perform, their lineout has to function and they have to be very, very physical around the breakdown. They’ve got to make it very difficult for any team to get quick ball in order to allow their very aggressive defensive system to push and have enough time to come back and go again.

“Saturday’s message is simple for the Boks: ‘Guys, we know how we play and we haven’t been able to change that in the last two years because we haven’t played together. We know that to play the way we play, which is an aerial game based on territory, our pack of forwards have to win the frontline battle’.

“And that’s as simple as it is. Our pack has to get on top of them. Every team is trying to be physical, but South Africa is normally better at being physical than everyone else. They like it. South Africans like to tackle because it’s a physical battle that they feel they can win. And when they win that, they get energy.

“It’s just in our nature, in our DNA. Always has been and always will be. You can only win Test matches if you’re physical. You can’t come here with skills and then think you’re going to win if you’re get smashed in the scrums and lineouts. The Boks have got a very simple way of playing and it is reliant on a pack of forwards that needs to get the ascendancy.”

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Craig Lewis