Boks-Lions: Leaders under the spotlight

With less than a week to go before the three-Test series between the Springboks and British & Irish Lions kicks off at Cape Town Stadium, the form and fitness of Alun Wyn Jones and Siya Kolisi are high on the list of hot talking points, writes ZELIM NEL.

Jones was named to lead the Lions to South Africa and he this week completed an impressive boomerang trip to the squad after suffering what was thought to be a tour-ending shoulder injury in the match against Japan at Murrayfield prior to the Lions’ departure.

The player with the most Test caps in the history of the game, Jones is 35 and ostensibly in line for Test selection (and possibly the captain’s armband) based on a 26-minute performance against the Stormers on Saturday.

Aside from his experience, Jones has proven he can take a punch (see: training-ground brawl with Wales teammate Jake Ball from earlier this year) and this appears to be a missing ingredient in a Lions pack that is loaded with technical expertise, but has yet to do anything that could be labelled ‘intimidating’.

If not Jones, who among the Lions will confront the likes of Eben Etzebeth?

There are also questions around what can be expected from the Bok captain. Kolisi is one of several players, including Bongi Mbonambi, who have been on ice since returning positive PCR tests after a 40-9 win over Georgia two weeks ago.

Of the four loose forwards that started for South Africa in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, Pieter-Steph du Toit alone can claim to be match fit as Francois Louw has retired and Duane Vermeulen (ankle) is a long shot to recover in time to participate in the series. For the sake of continuity, Kolisi’s readiness will be a top priority for the world champions.

Rassie Erasmus has bet the house on Jasper Wiese to ably replace Vermeulen. It’s a huge show of faith in a 25-year-old who was largely anonymous in more than 50 appearances for the Cheetahs before he joined Leicester last year.

Not only has Erasmus ignored the experience and quality of 30-Test veteran Marcell Coetzee, he has also leapfrogged Wiese ahead of Sale twins Dan and Jean-Luc du Preez. Wiese looks the part but has yet to translate an angry face into scary performances, and it’s worth considering his disciplinary record of two yellow cards and one red during the 2020-21 English Premiership.

The Bomb Squad was a key factor in closing out matches for the Boks in Japan and it remains to be seen whether the bench is capable of living up to that reputation in 2021.

The uncertainty around RG Snyman’s status suggests his place on the bench will be taken by the less dynamic Nico Janse van Rensburg, while the retirement of legendary loosehead prop Beast Mtawarira has promoted Steven Kitshoff into the starting XV and will likely see Ox Nche join Trevor Nyakane as the propping combo in the final 25.

Nche only has two Test caps while Nyakane was unconvincing against Georgia and poor in his start for South Africa A against the Lions. In the first instance, there was a dramatic improvement when Frans Malherbe jogged on and again, though to a lesser degree, when Vincent Koch replaced Nyakane against the Lions.

The tourists have yet to flex with consistency at the set piece but where they’ve shown plenty of power is out wide where Duhan van der Merwe’s Jonah Lomu impersonations have left a trail of South Africa’s provincial players in his wake.

His likely match-up against Cheslin Kolbe promises to be decisive. Diminutive Kolbe relies on a defensive system that aims to get him to the tackle point at the same time as the ball arrives. The Lions will have plans to leverage Van der Merwe’s size by getting the ball to him before Kolbe arrives – as was the case when centre Chris Harris sent Kolbe sprawling in the SA A match.

But, on the flip side, Kolbe made Harris look like a tight forward when he beat the Lions midfielder to send Lukhanyo Am over for a try. The Boks will be eager to create one-on-one situations for Kolbe to harness his electric agility and acceleration against the heavier Van der Merwe.

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Craig Lewis