The highly anticipated back-to-back Tests against the All Blacks will provide the Springboks with a different but more meaningful examination compared to the recent Lions series, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Lions tours are ‘strange animals’ in the rugby kingdom. For the hosts, such as South Africa in 2021, the tour comes around every 12 years and is viewed by most to be virtually on the same importance level as a World Cup.
Siya Kolisi’s Springboks ended a 12-year wait for the Lions to return to South Africa by claiming a famous 2-1 series win but, seemingly in a flash, it was all over.
The four northern-hemisphere nations who came together for such an occasion have disbanded, returning home knowing that they came so close, yet so far, to achieving a historic series victory of their own.
Lions series hold the utmost importance when they are under way and yet, when they are over, they are over. The result will go down in the history books, and players will tick it off their rugby bucket list, but then almost swiftly move on.
Ultimately, it’s a one-off event, only to be repeated in the same country in another 12 years by a completely different set of players.
It is more of a tradition than a rivalry.
Now, for the Springboks and All Blacks, it is a whole different ball game. These two teams are approaching their historic 100th Test-match battle, which will take place in Townsville on 25 September.
There is quite literally a century of increasingly regular international battles between these teams that have shaped this contest into one of the most well-known rivalries in all of sport.
The nature of the Lions series demanded low-risk, but highly compelling Test-match rugby, with each team waiting for the other to crack after applying immense pressure through physicality on defence, among the forwards up front and via a prolific aerial game.
The two Test matches against the All Blacks will be different.
When the teams meet in Townsville, it will be almost exactly two years to the day since they last faced each other in the 2019 World Cup.
Although the All Blacks won the battle in Yokohama, they ultimately lost the war as South Africa went on to win the global showpiece, claim top spot in the world rugby standings (that lead now stretches to more than five rankings points) and most recently backed up the World Cup win with Lions series glory.
You sense during all this time, the All Blacks will have been simmering. They will want another shot at the Springboks, and the opportunity to begin moving back towards a rugby hegemony that they used to enjoy for such an extended period.
But it’s now the Boks who have moved into a class of their own. They are the leaders of the pack, and it’s a chasing game for the rest.
By beating the Lions – particularly in such extraordinarily challenging circumstances – this generation of Springboks has elevated their status to a whole new level.
But they will be sternly tested by the All Blacks. The speed and tempo with which New Zealand play will be vastly different to what they faced against the Lions.
The Boks’ defence and fitness levels will need to stand up to this examination, particularly in the final stages of each half when the All Blacks pride themselves on upping the tempo of their play.
The Springboks were undoubtedly most unsettled against the Lions when Finn Russell came on in the third and final Test, and brought speed, variety and unpredictability to backline proceedings.
Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga will present a halfback pairing of high class and skill, with plenty of tricks up their sleeve.
However, the Boks will know they have the forward pack to achieve forward dominance, and the defensive cohesion to restrict New Zealand’s instinctive attack. It’s then down to discipline, kicking accuracy and seizing every points-scoring opportunity.
Whatever happens over these next two Tests, it’s certain to be one of the most fiercely competitive and highly compelling battles of contrasting styles.
And whatever the outcome may be, these two rivals will then regroup, before doing it all over again in 2022. Bring it on!