The importance of the SA A game against the British & Irish Lions has skyrocketed, not only to offer some much-needed competitive preparation in both camps, but also to breathe some excitement into a stop-start tour, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Retrospective criticism is pointless, but I’m sure very few would argue that the start to this Lions series has been underwhelming at best.
For most, there was just relief that the Lions-Sharks match could go ahead on Wednesday night after a Covid-19 scare in the camp of the tourists, but the fact Warren Gatland’s side rocked up with just one replacement back on the bench spoke volumes about just how compromised this tour has become.
For the second tour match in succession, the Lions racked up more than 50 points, and still graciously thanked the hosts afterwards for putting up a “fight”.
At the same stage of the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2017, they had battled to a six-point win over the New Zealand Barbarians and then been beaten by the Blues in their second tour match.
In other ‘warm-up’ games, the Lions would also become unstuck against the Highlanders and draw with the Hurricanes.
It’s a very different affair this time around. South Africa’s franchises – and particularly a side like the Sharks for example – have been shorn of both their frontline and fringe Boks as an extended national squad has had to be called into camp in order to safeguard against any Covid-19 setbacks.
The steady departure of players abroad also means high-quality South African players such as Wilco Louw, Akker van der Merwe, Jacques Vermeulen, Andre Esterhuizen, Tyrone Green, Jan Serfontein and many others are not around to bolster the South African franchise strength.
It means mostly young and inexperienced players are having to contend with the pressure of tackling what certainly looks to be a highly motivated and well-prepared Lions contingent.
A match-up between the Lions and Bulls – who don’t have many players in the Bok camp – would have been a compelling clash, but this encounter scheduled for Saturday had to be called off due to a virus outbreak, and rescheduling seems unlikely.
That leaves the tourists with just the game against SA A on 14 July, followed by what is likely to be another one-sided affair against the Stormers, and then it’s straight into the first Test match at Cape Town Stadium.
All in all, it was no surprise to hear Warren Gatland recently reference how the Lions were “underdone” as they headed into the 2009 Test series against the Springboks as a result of lopsided warm-up fixtures. For multiple reasons, it’s only worse this time around.
What the Lions surely need more than anything else is to front up to a mid-week side that presents a dynamic, high-speed and physical defence that would mirror what they will expect to face against the bruising Boks.
Running local opposition ragged in the wider channels, while being afforded all the time and space for their flyhalf general to orchestrate proceedings, amounts to little more than what they could achieve at training.
Their best bet of a pre-Test challenge will surely come from South Africa A, and for the sake of a tour that has endured a disruptive and pedestrian start, it would be good to see a high-quality and competitive team sent into battle.
It’s long been accepted that the Springboks would be woefully undercooked heading into the three-Test series, and there will only be further frustration that training sessions and particularly the second warm-up match against Georgia have had to be scrapped due to a Covid-19 outbreak.
The Boks may well have been hoping to deploy some first-choice players such as Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, Faf de Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe, Damian de Allende and Lood de Jager against Georgia, while even key flyhalves Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies looked in need of more game time.
It will now be interesting to see whether there has been a bit of a rethink and if some frontline players are pressed into action for South Africa A.
The challenge presented by Georgia in the first warm-up match would have actually been thoroughly enjoyed by the Boks, who welcomed a bit of physicality and the opportunity to test themselves against a different overseas opponent.
The cancellation of the second game against Georgia is just another curve ball among a litany of others that the Springboks have had to contend with over the last 18 months, but perhaps the SA A game could offer another opportunity for some much-needed preparation.
This is already the shortest-ever Lions tour, and with this weekend’s game against the Bulls already cut from the calendar, there is an increasing need for some life to be breathed into proceedings.
That could be provided by a strong South Africa A side firing things up against the Lions in Cape Town, and to remind everyone that the three-Test series will still be as brutally entertaining as it will be utterly unpredictable.