SA Rugby magazine identifies key players from the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions who could be set for a big Test series.
There are no passengers in modern rugby, a point driven home by the Springboks making the best use of their bench in 2019 to win a third world title. But some players, due to a mix of their experience, skill and their position in the team, have a far greater role in determining the outcome of matches.
In the latest SA Rugby magazine, ZELIM NEL picks the players he believes could play a key role in deciding the 2021 British & Irish Lions series.
Pieter-Steph du Toit
In the World Cup semi-final, against Wales, and the final against England, Springbok blindside flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit made 35 tackles and hit 60 rucks.
His high work rate crucially takes the pressure off his pack-mates, adding width to the defensive line, ensuring continuity on attack and expanding the scope of work the world champions can get through in 80 minutes.
The best player on the planet in 2019, Du Toit has timed his return from multiple setbacks perfectly to steam into the Lions series with the piston-like output that drives the Bok engine.
Du Toit had barely drained the last dregs of champagne from the Webb Ellis Cup when his 2020 Super Rugby campaign for the Stormers prematurely ended with a leg injury that threatened his career, and his quality of life.
The haematoma developed into acute compartment syndrome and at one point during a period of multiple surgeries, doctors warned of the possibility of amputation.
The industrial blindside flanker prevailed, but just when it appeared he was in the clear, Du Toit’s return to play was again delayed when he suffered a blow to his nose in training.
After almost 400 days on the Stormers’ injury list, Du Toit trotted out in the Rainbow Cup and immediately underlined his reputation for hard work with successive 80-minute performances.
The 28-year-old’s value to the world champions is considerable as Du Toit gets through a mountain of the dirty work that goes unseen by the casual fan.
Damian de Allende
South Africa is not known for expansive rugby, but under even the most conservative plan, the ball eventually has to come out to the backline. And when that happens, you’ve got to have at least one player capable of forcing gainline access because asking politely doesn’t often get the desired result.
De Allende is that guy. This is by no means a concession that he’s one-dimensional – despite what you’ll hear from the biggest boep at the bar, De Allende is one of the most talented all-rounders to grace South Africa’s midfield. He’s got good burst for a big man, great feet, fast release and outstanding range as a passer, and a big boot to boot.
The original point is, he’s a unit in contact, combining surprising leg drive with great balance to achieve dominant carries with world-class frequency. And when a team has a midfielder capable of turning slow ball into a positive carry, it keeps defenders on rollerskates because what comes next is a stampede of fresh forwards running downhill on to the next pass.
De Allende’s ability to move the pile complements Du Toit’s work in securing the Bok breakdown and breathes life into the attack.
South Africa were awarded 69 lineouts at the 2019 Rugby World Cup and they won 68 of them. Not good enough, I know. But still, better than England who lost seven of 81 feeds.
The Boks advance behind a suffocating kicking attack that aims to, as a tertiary objective, force exit kicks to touch. When those kicks gift South Africa an attacking lineout that’s operating at 98%, it can get quite arduous for the team not wearing green.
The lineout was the origin of 15 of the Boks’ 33 tries in Japan and Itoje will be central to the Lions’ most realistic shot at winning this Test series, which is to successfully contest possession at the set piece.
Itoje won’t be expected to pick off multiple Bok throw-ins, but Warren Gatland will be hoping the England jumper can place enough pressure on the middle of the Bok lineout to make the world champions reactive and less assured in their execution, all of which has the potential to disrupt the quality of possession at source.
The other half of Itoje’s job in destabilising the Bok attack requires just as much accuracy and decision-making, and a lot more bravery.
The towering England lock is so useful on the deck that Eddie Jones has mulled over deploying him at openside flanker. With the Lions more likely to commit to double hits than raiding the breakdown, Itoje’s ability to pick the right moments to have a dip could swing the referee, and the series.
The big man is a mainstay of an Ireland scrum that conceded two scrum penalties during the 2021 Six Nations championship.
For context, England conceded 10. That’s only four more than the Red Roses surrendered against South Africa in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. Recap: the Boks won that match 32-12.
Where Itoje represents the athletic half of a two-prong attack on South Africa’s set piece, Furlong will be responsible for bringing power to the challenge.
A powerful scrum is the stuff of dreams for every No 8 who dreams of rumbling downhill from the base of an attacking scrum rolling inexorably toward pay dirt. The primary goal of defensive, and even neutral-position scrums is to win a penalty that converts the shove contest into a jump-ball contest 40m downfield. Unfortunately for the Boks, it’s an objective that’s hard to achieve when you’re scrumming against the bollard that is Furlong.
The accuracy and power of the Ireland scrum anchor means the Boks will have to toil for their field position the good, old-fashioned way, while winning the preferred shoulder at attacking scrums will also require more sweat than usual.
In addition, Furlong’s scrumming prowess will act as an insurance policy for the Lions attack, and a caveat to every Bok offload.
The 28-year-old will play a decisive role in the Lions series as the Scotland fullback is set to be confronted by the brunt of South Africa’s high-volume kicking game.
Whether it’s racing to extinguish the flames of long kicks to space or facing the fiery chase of Bok heavies while waiting for a contestable to plummet back to earth, Hogg will have to pass a stern examination of his skills, fortitude and tactical wit for the Lions to have any chance of winning this series.
He’s good in the air and feisty enough in the tackle-fight to take care of himself until the cavalry arrives, and he holsters a considerable kicking game sure to make honest men of the Bok back three.
But being capable of returning kicks to the sender and having the patience to do so is two different things, especially for a runner of Hogg’s prodigious talent. The Scotland fullback ended the Six Nations with 20 broken tackles and seven offloads, good for second place in both categories.
In Test rugby, who dares loses, and the Boks will make a point of dangling run-bait in front of Hogg when the odds are stacked against an effective counter-attack.
Conversely, if the Lions kicking game does hit the mark, Hogg will have opportunities to attack in general play where converting tactical pressure into points will be key.