The Springboks will need to quickly rediscover team synergy before the highly anticipated Lions series, writes former captain JEAN DE VILLIERS.
The Springboks can win the series against the British & Irish Lions. Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber – who were at the forefront of the 2019 World Cup success – know they have the players and the gameplan to come out of this long-awaited battle on top.
The problem the Bok coaches face, however – and to be fair, it is a significant problem – is that South Africans haven’t played a Test for nearly two years.
They won’t have a lot of time to prepare together before the series against the Lions. They will be hard-pressed to replicate the same form that won them the World Cup – at least immediately – when they play that first big game at Cape Town Stadium on 24 July.
All that said, it can only be a good thing that Erasmus and Nienaber know what they have in most of these players. The bulk of the squad that won the World Cup is still available for selection.
I’d expect the Boks to employ the same approach that brought them success in Japan – with a few variations. It’s not like they’re being forced to build a team from scratch, as is the case at the Lions.
There is so much uncertainty around this tour. Fortunately, the fixtures have been confirmed and – barring a change to the Covid-19 situation – will go ahead.
Both teams will live and train in bio-secure bubbles, though, and all games will be staged behind closed doors. It will be interesting to see how that impacts on the mental health – and ultimately the performances – of both sets of players.
In the past, Gatland, as the head coach of Wales and of the Lions, has favoured a particular style of play. His selections for the tour to South Africa, however, have surprised many people, including myself.
Some new and exciting players have been included. Some veterans who may have lent the tourists some grunt at the set pieces and in the midfield have been omitted.
You need to meet the challenge of the Boks at the scrums and lineouts to have a say in a Test match. You also need players who can win the gainline battle and provide the team with go-forward in the wider channels.
Time will reveal what Gatland is thinking with regard to selection and strategy. Perhaps he has picked mobile players in the back row, such as No 8 Sam Simmonds, with the intent of playing a high-tempo game. But if the Lions intend to play at a lively pace, why have they omitted someone like Kyle Sinckler, a prop who thrives in open play?
There are a lot of questions across the team and I’m sure we’ll get a clearer idea of Gatland’s approach after the Lions play a few matches against the franchises. The biggest question mark for me is at No 13, which is such a crucial defensive position in Test rugby.
Chris Harris has been solid if not spectacular for Scotland in the Six Nations. If you’re asking me before the tour who I think Gatland will back in the midfield, it’s Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, due to their physical presence and existing partnership with Ireland.
Owen Farrell has been mentioned as a No 12 option, but you would expect the Lions to field someone with the ability to punch it up in midfield. Manu Tuilagi would have been ideal in this role. He returned from injury only recently, though, so it may have been a gamble to pick him at this stage, especially if the Lions intend to follow the Boks’ lead and go with a six-two split on the bench.
Hopefully the franchises and South Africa A will provide the Lions with a good challenge in the first five matches of the tour. It remains to be seen if the Bok players will be available for those fixtures. They may be saved for the Tests.
The Boks must strive to regain their ferocious levels of physicality and intensity, as well as their synergy, after the pandemic-enforced hiatus from Test rugby.
Georgia are unlikely to challenge the Boks in the two preliminary Tests scheduled for early July. And yet, those matches could be valuable in that the players – many of whom have spent the bulk of the past two years abroad – will spend some time together on the park.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports