SA Rugby magazine ringfences three lessons from the Lions series, and looks ahead to how they might impact the Rugby Championship.
Lesson 1: Damian Willemse has what it takes
For many, the selection of Damian Willemse in the Springbok squad for the Lions series came as a shock. His form at domestic level varied, as the young man struggled for consistency and not quite settled on a position.
The Bok coaches, however, had tremendous faith in Willemse’s ability and showed it in selecting him as part of the match-day 23 for all three Lions Tests and the match against Georgia.
For someone so inexperienced to be entrusted with veteran Frans Steyn’s usual role, speaks volumes of how highly Springbok management regards Willemse. And the young man paid back that trust in droves.
Every time Willemse was introduced from the bench he made a difference. Being able to cover multiple positions in the backfield, he played centre, wing and fullback. His intensity on defence and sharpness with ball in hand stood out.
With Damian de Allende due a well-deserved break, the time may have come for Willemse’s opportunity to start in the centres during the Rugby Championship. He finally seems poised to realise his full potential.
Lesson 2: Set piece (still!) wins Test matches
Before the Test series, all the talk was about the strength of the Lions’ back-row forwards. Players like Lawes, Curry, Watson and Faletau were tipped to run the Boks ragged and seal a series victory for the tourists.
But those who know South African rugby know that the Springboks don’t take the opposition to the dance floor but to the gutters. And so it proved again. The impact of the South African tight five in the scrums and mauls ultimately carried the Boks to series victory.
Kitshoff, Malherbe, Vincent Koch and the indomitable Trevor Nyakane are the bedrock upon which the Boks’ triumph was built. It’s perhaps cliched to suggest that set-piece dominance is critical to victory, but the Lions series served as a timely reminder – especially to those deriding the Boks as ‘boring’.
While they may looked to develop and vary their attack during the Rugby Championship, it’s worth remembering that they will never compromise on set-piece strength.
Lesson 3: The Boks have built depth
The loss of Duane Vermeulen and RG Snyman ahead of the Test series may have sounded alarm bells for many fans. Both are pivotal players within the Springbok set-up and rank among the best in the world in their respective positions.
Already facing stark odds, losing players of that calibre made the task that much more difficult for the Boks. To then also lose the services of 2019 World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit and Faf de Klerk ahead of the all-important third Test was almost a death blow.
For the Springboks to have clinched the series without some of their most influential players speaks volumes about the depth management has cultivated. Players such as Kwagga Smith, Cobus Reinach and Jasper Wiese performed heroically on the biggest stage.
With a packed rugby calendar this year, the Springboks will likely need to call on these players again. Management will confidently know that, when the occasion demands it, they are more than capable of stepping up.
Photo: EJ Langner/Gallo Images