Even if the Boks face the B&I Lions in the UK and Ireland this July, they shouldn’t be written off, ventures ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE.
The British & Irish Lions series seems set to have a very different feel to it this year. Instead of a sea of red fans crashing upon the shores of South Africa, the Springboks may have no option but to embark on a ‘tour’ of their own.
It would be remiss not to first pay heed to the fact that a UK-and-Ireland-based series is not the optimal outcome.
For South Africa, a Lions series comes only about once every twelve years. It is a unique spectacle and harkens back to an era predating professionalism. The magic of the series is somewhat eroded by staging it in the UK and Ireland.
Though an understandable decision given the current pandemic, to move the tour north will sadly deprive many South African fans and players of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The South African economy would also lose billions in potential revenue by moving the tour. This in a time when it so desperately needs a cash injection.
South Africa seems likely to once again be the victims of cruel circumstance. Let us not mince words: not playing the Lions series in South Africa (however understandable and justifiable a decision it may be) would be deeply disappointing.
It does not do to dwell upon disappointment, though.
Whatever the sentiment may be, the Springboks will need to harness those emotions and use them as motivation for the coming series. They could face a herculean task: four Tests in each of the Home Nations’ capitals. A journey into the Lions’ den, as it were.
The Springboks have not played together as a side since that famous night at Yokohama in 2019. With little time to prepare for the series, they will need to shake off the rust quickly.
It has been reported that the Boks are set to face Japan, USA and the French Barbarians as warm-up opposition. Though perhaps not the strongest of opponents, Nienaber’s men will be thankful for any opportunity to play together and rediscover the cohesion that brought them success in Japan.
Argentina demonstrated last year that even with little preparation time it is possible to humble the mightiest of opponents. The Boks will no doubt draw upon that famous upset. If they can do it, so can we.
Though the Springboks are up against it, it is worth highlighting that there are a few factors in their favour.
For a start, the UK and Ireland no longer hold the aura of before. Whereas in the past it was an intimidating place, unfamiliar to South African players, today it is very much the opposite.
Scores of Saffas run out every weekend to play (and excel) in the Premiership and PRO14 competitions. Top Springboks like Lood de Jager, Damian de Allende and Faf de Klerk know the European conditions, players and rugby philosophy inside out. Members of the Springbok management team, Felix Jones and Andy Edwards, live and breathe UK and Irish rugby.
The experience of these key personnel will be invaluable to the Bok cause. The UK and Ireland are no longer unknown entities. The Boks will know exactly what to expect.
As a further element of good fortune, the Springboks find themselves facing a Lions side comprising a collection of teams in a rebuilding phase.
Ireland and Wales are still finding their feet under new coaches. Scotland may be building momentum but still look far from world beaters. And judging by their performances over the course of the Six Nations, England look lost at sea.
Whereas the core of the Springbok squad remains largely identifiable already, the same cannot be said of the Lions. A few months ago, Maro Itoje was being paraded as the de facto Lions captain. Now the narrative suggests he’d be lucky to make the starting team.
However disjointed the Springboks may appear – with players scattered across the globe – the Lions are themselves a long way from the finished article. Coach Warren Gatland is a savvy operator and will have plans in place, but perhaps not set in stone …
The single most significant factor in the Springboks’ favour, however, is that they have their backs against the wall.
South Africans are never ones to shirk a challenge. There is a directness in our personalities that translates into how we play the game. Uncompromising, abrasive and bloody tough.
The more willing the world is to write us off, the more determined we are to prove them wrong.
The Boks are the only country in the world to win two Rugby World Cups away from home. They are also the most recent side to beat the Lions in a Test series. All this despite not being afforded the luxury of resources availed to the other tier-one nations.
Players such as Makazole Mapimpi, Siya Kolisi and Malcolm Marx have all trodden a difficult path to Springbok greatness. Their success has come by sheer force of will. A dogmatic refusal to back down. An insistence to propel themselves through every obstacle in their way.
These players, and so many more, embody what Jacques Nienaber describes as ‘superior discontent’. An unrelenting conviction to never give in.
The Springboks may be the underdogs, but it’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, it’s about the size of the fight in the dog.
Come July, the Springboks will be ready to let the dogs of war out. Bring it on!