Former assistant coach Gary Gold has shared a fascinating anecdote of how the Springboks dominated the set-piece exchanges against the British & Irish Lions in 2009.
In an exclusive interview, published in Rugby World magazine, Gold reveals how the Springbok management was left scratching their heads after the Lions announced their starting XV for the first Test in Durban.
Gold was certain that Andrew Sheridan, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones would start in the front row. He ensured that the Boks coaches and players prepared themselves for that specific challenge.
Lions coach Ian McGeechan, however, selected Gethin Jenkins, Lee Mears and Phil Vickery as his starting front row for the series-shaping opener at Kings Park. And when the news reached the Bok camp, De Villiers and Muir demanded an explanation from their inside man.
‘They told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. They asked me how on earth I could have got things so badly wrong,’ Gold explained.
At the time of the exchange, however, he was quick to realise that South Africa had a golden opportunity. ‘I said, “Hang on, I think it’s the Lions who have got things badly wrong here … and we might have a chance against that combination.” We all know how things panned out in that first Test.’
Gold smiles when he’s asked to reflect on a dramatic series that culminated in a 2-1 victory for the Boks. Since then, he’s been at the helm of Newcastle, Bath, Kobelco Steelers, the Sharks, Worcester and is presently the head coach of the USA national side. Helping the Boks beat the Lions in 2009 still ranks among his proudest achievements, though.
The South African performance at the set pieces in that series is now the stuff of legend. Less has been said about the decision to bench Martyn Williams, an out-and-out fetcher, which Gold believes cost the visitors dearly at the breakdowns.
‘We were unapologetic regarding our style of play. We believed the Experimental Law Variations, introduced in 2008, would work to our advantage. Less possession, more territory was all important. We were very direct, even with our 10s, Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn.
‘One of the biggest untold stories of that Lions’ series was our strength over the ball. John Smit moved to tighthead to accommodate Bismarck du Plessis, who was at the height of his game. Bismarck is so good at the breakdown, and Jean de Villiers is another who doesn’t get enough credit in this area.
‘Juan Smith and Schalk Burger were good at the breakdown, but Heinrich Brussow was world class. So, if you looked at our team, we had the potential to put a genuine poacher on the ball at every second or third ruck. We were a threat across the field if the Lions didn’t get their cleaners to the breakdown on time.
‘Brussow picked up turnover penalties for fun. His timing was immaculate. The Lions weren’t prepared for it, and I don’t think they understood the consequences of losing that particular battle on the ground.