Excitement is rapidly building as the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour looms, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Morne Steyn had yet to start a Test match in his fledgling career, but when John Smit looked around in the dramatic final moments of the apocalyptic second Test match against the British & Irish Lions in Pretoria 11 years ago, there was the young Bulls flyhalf at his side, as eager as a puppy.
The scores were locked at 25-25 and the curtains were about to come down on a game so ferocious that five Lions ended up in hospital and Schalk Burger copped an eight-week ban for gouging.
‘Pressure? If I think back, that one stands out,’ says the amiable Steyn, who came on in the 69th minute.
‘John said he was still looking around to give the ball to Frans Steyn, who usually took the long kicks. But I was right next to him and told him I was ready,’ says Steyn, who was a model of composure as he slotted the kick from 53m to seal the series after the win in Durban the previous week.
It ranks among Steyn’s sweetest rugby days, not least because he was swept up by the grand sense of occasion that envelopes all Lions matches. ‘To look out at the stands was to witness a blood-red sea,’ he says of the teeming fans from the UK and Ireland who squeezed into Loftus Versfeld for one of the greatest games in modern history.
Now 36 and second on the all-time list of SA point-scorers, Steyn is back in Pretoria with the Bulls and predicts yet another bruising series next year. He agrees that one team will likely have a surplus of international rugby under their belts while the other might have very little due to the influence of the Covid-19 pandemic, which destroyed rugby’s fixture lists.
‘To be underdone is tough and they’ll probably be more into it than us,’ he says. ‘But South Africa will always find a way.’
He isn’t expecting a significant departure from the recipe that worked so formidably in 2019, saying that what’s especially important is keeping the 9-10, 12-13 and hooker-lock combinations in sync.
Having played 66 times for the Boks, Steyn has deep insight into what constitutes a match-winning playmaker and he says Handre Pollard is unrivalled as a flyhalf.
‘He showed at the World Cup just how exciting he is, his quality coming through especially in the semi-final and final. Handre has worked hard on his kicking game and is a very good attacking player.’
Although Rassie Erasmus has moved upstairs, new coach Jacques Nienaber won’t deviate from the established pillars. Frankly, only retirements and injuries should force a change in personnel. Beast Mtawarira’s shift has ended, opening up an intriguing race between the likes of Steven Kitshoff, Trevor Nyakane, Thomas du Toit, Ox Nche and Lizo Gqoboka for the loosehead jersey.
Francois Louw, equally accomplished as a blindsider or fetcher, has also shuffled off. SA has a ridiculous supply of elite-level back-row contenders, from Rynhardt Elstadt and Marcell Coetzee to Kwagga Smith and of course Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Probably the biggest disappointment is how the feisty bunch of youngsters making their way locally will likely have little chance to stake a claim in the side. Players like Joseph Dweba, Aphelele Fassi and Jaco Coetzee won’t have much time or opportunity to bang down the selection door.
Meanwhile, in the UK and Ireland the big recent story, one that has upset many, is that yet again the Premiership Rugby body has denied the Lions any break or recuperation or any chance of gathering before they set off.
The English Premiership final will take place at Twickenham on 26 June. The Lions play their first game in SA one week later. That Premiership title decider could mean that Gatland will not have his full squad together potentially until departure day for SA, with a number of Lions likely to be involved at Twickenham. As a party they will only meet for the first time on the Sunday. If tradition is maintained they will have to attend a black-tie sponsors dinner that night – and then go on to play the world champions.
But there is a shaft of light. Saracens cannot make the playoffs as they will be in the Championship (second division). Some of their Test players have gone to other clubs on one-year deals, but Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Jamie George and Elliot Daly will all be reasonably fresh as they are expected to play only the odd game in the Championship.
This makes it ever more likely that the captain will be either Itoje or Farrell, notwithstanding South Africa’s broad disdain for the brash flyhalf. As captains, Itoje and Kolisi would provide powerful symbolism given the massive socio-political and cultural shifts taking place. Welsh giant Alun Wyn Jones is another impressive candidate, although he will be 35 and battle-worn.
The Lions are spoiled for choice in every area. Fullback possibilities include Elliot Daly, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson; perhaps also Stuart Hogg, although coach Warren Gatland is no fan of his high-ball work.
Tukkies old boy Duhan van der Merwe, now in Edinburgh, is by contrast a player rated highly by Gatland and will come into contention among the wings, including Jonny May and Josh Adams.
Big Irishman Chris Farrell fits the bill as the sort of physical sort required to get in the Boks’ faces in midfield, so too Manu Tuilagi. Throw in Jonathan Davies, Henry Slade and Owen Farrell and the possibilities among the centres are endless.
Dan Biggar and Finn Russell shape up as the key men for the No 10 shirt, while Johnny Sexton is desperate to make the tour. But, at 35, will it be a year too far?
George Ford of England has been in great form, but his lack of size makes you wonder how wise it will be to play him against a massive side like the Boks.
If Conor Murray doesn’t recover form, look for new Irishman John Cooney to fill the scrumhalf void, plus Gareth Davies and Ben Youngs.
The Lions’ proud tradition of forward play ought to continue given the props available, led in the main by Mako Vunipola and potentially Tadhg Furlong, so outstanding in New Zealand in 2017, but some way off those heights for now.
Scotland have unearthed a dynamic loosehead in Rory Sutherland, while Rhys Carre of Wales may be a long shot. Kyle Sinckler will always be in the mix, as will massive Irish tighthead Andrew Porter (who can squat 350kg).
Likely hookers Jamie George and Stuart McInally will be joined by either Fraser Brown or Ken Owens. Brown is the much bigger man, and Owens a great player.
The Lions will go like for like with the Boks in selecting a bruiser alongside a technician at lock, so look for Itoje and probably Jones to head up the second-row queue with James Ryan, Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson.
The familiar names of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry will chase down the starting flank positions with interest from Jamie Ritchie and Dan Leavy, after a long injury break.
Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau stand out as the two finest No 8s but will require a degree of luck given their run of injuries.
These are early days yet and much can still happen, but the touchpaper has been lit. One of rugby’s greatest traditions is starting to crackle.
*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!
Unflappable Fourie’s forecast
‘It’s going to be better than any series before.’
This is the confident pick of Springbok great Fourie du Preez, who was part of the last international team to beat the British and Irish Lions in a series, in 2009.
‘They will be coming with revenge on their minds, especially as they believed they were the better team in 2009. Also, the 2019 World Cup final will spur many Englishmen in the team.’
Du Preez grew up in awe of what Lions’ series represent, not least because his father, Fourie snr, scored two tries when playing against the tourists for Northern Transvaal in 1968.
Years later, when young Fourie was in Standard Seven, he recalls watching the Lions live for the first time, in 1997, a memory that remains etched in his mind. He remembers, too, that the Boks seemed to be better – the try count was 9-3 to SA across the series – yet still lost.
The former scrumhalf says that the Boks’ crusade towards 2009 began even before the World Cup in 2007, when they also identified winning in New Zealand and beating the Lions as the big targets for the young squad.
The first Test in Durban had a strange momentum, Du Preez recalls. ‘Not being arrogant, but it felt easier than expected. However, the last 15 minutes we brought our whole bench on and the momentum shifted. It was nail-biting.’
The second Test in Pretoria couldn’t have been more dissimilar.
‘Everyone was very confident. But from kick-off it was completely different, so much more physical, as if we were playing a completely different team. They put us under a lot of pressure and it was tough staying in the game until the great escape at the end.’
His ‘rivalry’ with Mike Phillips was in name only as the spiky Welshman preferred to target the forwards with his niggle, especially Bakkies Botha, with whom he had a running battle.
‘He got under our skins in the second Test,’ laughs Du Preez, whose approach was always more methodical than maverick.