Even with limited or no fans, home-ground advantage will still be a series-defining benefit for the Springboks when they face the British & Irish Lions, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Reverting to plans for the British & Irish Lions series to be played in South Africa will help level the playing fields for a Springbok side that would otherwise have been undeniably regarded as underdogs should they have to travel to the UK.
In the heady days that followed the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup success, many would have put good money on backing the world champions to mirror the class of 2007 by lifting the Webb Ellis trophy and backing it up with a Lions series victory.
Yet, in the unforeseeable 18-month period since the Boks were at the summit of the rugby world after hammering England in the World Cup final in Yokohama, there’s been no rugby for them.
Several leading players have endured injuries or had only limited game time. Others have returned to action in fits and starts in competitions overseas, while in South Africa there has been a litany of domestic derbies.
An extended Currie Cup was followed by a preparation series, but it wasn’t particularly easy to make a definite assessment of just how beneficial this ‘preparation’ was as squads were rotated and players adjusted to playing in empty stadiums.
The Rainbow Cup, also aimed at preparing some of South Africa’s leading players for the Lions series, was then thrown into jeopardy in mid-April when it emerged that certain travel assurances for SA teams heading abroad had failed to materialise.
It has required plenty of patience and proactive thinking as the best-laid plans have often been scuppered at crucial junctures.
All Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus can do is try to control the controllables, and in April they were at least able to call some of the top local players into a set of alignment camps to present plans for the 2021 season.
Gathering for these all-important brainstorming sessions had previously been yet another planning procedure that was almost impossible to conduct due to Covid-19 complications, and plenty of work has had to be done remotely. Such is the way of the world these days.
When Erasmus, Nienaber and the rest of the Bok coaching contingent are finally able to get the troops together for hands-on training and series preparation, they will need to make up for a lot of lost time.
What went on before and during the World Cup will feel like ancient history, and the Boks will need to keep the messages simple and the planning clear-cut to compete against a high-quality Lions side.
Most of the players in Warrent Gatland’s squad have recently competed in a highly competitive Six Nations and there is little doubt that most of the Lions team will be a lot more battle-hardened when it comes to the rigours of Test rugby, but they will face obstacles of their own.
As always, the Lions’ primary challenge will be to ensure that a group of players from different countries can be aligned on a set strategy and gameplan in the colours of the British & Irish touring team.
Not too dissimilarly, though, the Bok coaching group will need to ensure their squad is brought back on to the same page, while player selection and the experience of those familiar with northern hemisphere players will be more important than ever.
With all this in mind, one of the biggest trump cards has to be the fact this tour will take place in South Africa. Travelling away from home and into a bio-bubble in the UK, and then playing in ‘away’ stadiums filled predominantly with Lions fans would have made the task almost impossible for the Boks.
Instead, with the final two Test matches set to take place at the FNB Stadium and Ellis Park, the Springboks will have the Highveld air as a familiar ally. Even playing at Cape Town Stadium will be a far more appealing prospect than turning up at Twickenham.
One way or another, this Lions tour is going to present a very different challenge for both teams, but home-ground advantage will still benefit the Boks, even if the stands are empty.