Face off: What’s the biggest Bok challenge?

CRAIG LEWIS and DYLAN JACK debate what will be the Boks’ biggest challenge as they prepare for the British & Irish Lions series.

Craig Lews says mental and physical readiness

It seems unfathomable that the world champions will play no Test rugby in 2020. After the triumphant highs of 2019, there will be an immense degree of frustration that the Springboks were denied the opportunity to ride the wave of World Cup momentum. Yet, for an array of very good rugby reasons, SA Rugby decided to withdraw the Springboks from Rugby Championship participation.

The good news is that one of the byproducts that has come out of this pandemic-disrupted year has been the heightened communication and collaboration between SA Rugby and the franchises. There has also been some innovative thinking, with the introduction of a unique draft pick system before a ‘Springbok Showdown’ trials match. Then there was the formation of a double-round local competition, which satisfies the Super Rugby stakeholders before transitioning into the Currie Cup.

Some more nifty problem solving will be required when it comes to finding the means for the Springboks to be suitably prepared to meet the British & Irish Lions next year. This is now the big carrot at the end of the stick, and there is no doubt director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and coach Jacques Nienaber will have spent plenty of time considering alternative means to get the Boks match-ready.

World Cup-winning players have been spread across the world, returning to play at different times depending on how each respective competition has been impacted by the pandemic. The trick for the Springboks will be finding a way to once again draw all these players back together in camp, possibly play some warm-up matches and to ensure everyone is mentally switched on after an unprecedented period without any international action.

READ: SA Rugby eyes 2021 home Tests

Dylan Jack says injuries to key players

The intensity of a Lions series is like none other. Former British & Irish Lions coach and player Sir Ian McGeechan described it as similar to playing three World Cup finals in a row.

It therefore stands to reason that the Springboks would want to keep as many of the 35-man squad who travelled to Japan in 2019 fit and on the field for as long as possible in the buildup to the series.

Already, the Springboks have lost locks Lood de Jager and RG Snyman and flyhalf Handre Pollard in the opening weeks of the European season in September.

De Jager will be out for the rest of the year after undergoing surgery on his third successive shoulder injury, while Pollard and Snyman will only return around April 2021 after suffering knee injuries.

Pieter-Steph du Toit, the 2019 SA Rugby and World Rugby Player of the Year, has also been ruled out for the rest of 2020 as he continues his recovery from the injury that nearly cost him his leg in March. According to Stormers coach John Dobson, the loose forward would be lucky to play any part in their domestic campaign.

With those four players already out, it stands to reason that Jacques Nienaber would be watching the Currie Cup with a vested interest, keen not to see any other key players suffer injuries.

The attrition rate of New Zealand’s domestic Super Rugby Aotearoa on their players has been well publicised and South Africa can hardly afford a replication of that tournament’s impact.

For obvious reasons, Nienaber should also be keeping an eye on the Japanese Top League, when it begins its season on 26 January. Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Malcolm Marx and Franco Mostert, who all played against England in the World Cup final, will be taking part that tournament.

Given the depth in experience the Lions are likely to travel with in July 2021, it makes it all the more important that the Springboks do as much they can to ensure they can field their strongest match-day squad in the Test series.

*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!

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Craig Lewis