With plans to host the British & Irish Lions series in the UK and Ireland gaining traction, South Africa’s European-based players may have a key role to play, writes ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE.
On Monday, the UK government announced its proposed roadmap for easing of Covid-19 restrictions. It’s expected that all restrictions will be lifted on 21 June, including those prohibiting the attendance of sporting events.
The possibility of playing the Lions series in front of packed stadia is reportedly a key factor for decision-makers in the ongoing debate over where and how the ‘tour’ should take place. Should the series go ahead in the UK and Ireland, as seems increasingly likely, the Springboks will have an immense challenge on their hands.
The Boks are already seriously underprepared for the series having played exactly zero minutes of international rugby since the Rugby World Cup final (compared to the 4,800 minutes played cumulatively by the home nations). Most of South Africa’s most senior Boks haven’t been in camp with each other for well over a year.
Mix in a litany of injuries to key players and the picture starts to look bleak for Jacques Nienaber’s men. Removing home advantage from the equation would take away the only factor the Boks still had in their favour. It would make an already herculean task that much more difficult.
If the Boks are to have any chance against the Lions, they will need to rely on the experience of their key players based in the UK and Ireland. Men like Faf de Klerk, Damian de Allende, Lood de Jager and Vincent Koch who ply their trade in the Premiership or PRO14 have an inside line on the conditions, refereeing interpretations and the opposition.
The Rugby World Cup showed the positive influence veterans such as Schalk Brits and Francois Louw had on the wider squad. By imparting their knowledge and experience, they played a vital role in engineering the Springboks’ eventual triumphs over Wales and England.
Contentious as it may be, there is even scope to argue that in making squad selections for the upcoming series, UK- and Irish-based players should be given preference.
A player such as Jannes Kirsten, for example, has won the Premiership with Exeter Chiefs – after being privy to all the strategies involved in ensuring success against the best players in England. Aside from being a fine player, the insight he could offer would be invaluable.
The Boks currently employ two European-based consultants: Felix Jones and Andy Edwards. Jones’ specific role as an assistant coach is to liase with South African players abroad to make sure they are aligned with Rassie Erasmus’ long-term strategy.
Edwards, formerly of Saracens, is the new head of athletic performance for the Boks. Both these men know Home Nations rugby inside out; they, too, will have a crucial part to play.
In perhaps the most famous speech in rugby, Jim Telfer described playing South Africa as the Lions’ ‘Everest’. The shoe is now firmly on the other foot.
If the Springboks are to surmount the seemingly insurmountable, they may need to rely on the experience of a core of ‘exiles’.