After all that has come before for this fraught British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, it feels remarkable to have finally arrived at Test match eve. This tour has, for better or worse, pressed through more than a year of uncertainty to teeter on the tightrope and reach a point it appeared at times might not come to pass.
This Test series will bear limited resemblance to Lions tours of the past. Of the many options considered in the last 12 months, cancellation or postponement would always have been deeply unpopular and unworkable; a relocation to Australia or the United Kingdom eventually proved equally undesirable. To South Africa, it was decided, the Lions must travel.
Both the Lions and the Springboks have since dealt with burst bubbles and Covid-19 outbreaks as the tour threatened to implode; the head coach of the Georgian side called upon to provide South Africa with their first Test action since their World Cup triumph 21 months ago has spent time in hospital on a ventilator.
Since arriving in the country, four weeks of shifting schedules and late reshuffles have passed against a backdrop of a mounting coronavirus crisis and civil unrest in pockets of South Africa to which the series will now not return.
The three Tests will be held in Cape Town behind closed doors – the compilers of the Domesday Book may find their manuscripts hold greater current veracity than the vision originally set out for this Lions tour pre-pandemic. It would be flippant and false to ignore all that has occurred for it sets a very different scene ahead of a unique series – this has not been a smooth road.
What should be three evenly matched and immensely physical Test matches now await. Lions head coach Warren Gatland described this as his hardest selection of a long career, perhaps not helped by a succession of one-sided games against the largely uncompetitive South African club sides.
“We picked what we thought was the best team for the weekend. We spent over an hour and a half on selection,” said Gatland. “I asked the coaches to come along with their 23s and we were all different. We all had to compromise and debate selections. It’s a great place to be in because there’s so many players putting their hands up and making it difficult for us.”
Gatland has been under no illusions as to how the Springboks wish to play. South Africa kick more than just about anyone else and will look to define the territorial battle, to then build around the Jacques Nienaber-masterminded defensive blitz that proved so formidable in Japan and a phalanx of hard-running, hard-tackling forwards built to win collisions.
The Lions have rolled the dice on a number of new combinations and favoured form over past performance. They have ensured they not only have a side to match South Africa’s brutality up front, but also one that contains multitudes to allow Gregor Townsend and his attack to challenge the Springboks in different ways.
Ahead of what could be a kick-heavy series, it also appears to be a Lions backline braced for an aerial bombardment. All three Tests may now be at sea level but how the two sides change in altitude may play a key role.
Among the many great disappointments of the pandemic’s arrival was the inability for rugby to capitalise on the World Cup win and its defining image – Siya Kolisi, a black South African captain with the famous No 6 on his back and the Webb Ellis Cup held aloft. South Africa have played just the one Test since, managing a warm-up game against Georgia before the second scheduled clash fell victim to Covid-19.
Kolisi is ushered back into Nienaber’s side at haste, fresh out of isolation, along with vice-captain and fulcrum fly-half Handre Pollard. While a degree of insulation is provided by their bubble they must manage a weight of emotion and expectation at a difficult time in their first proper run-out since their World Cup zenith.
Without Duane Vermeulen, the one major absentee from the side that began the World Cup final against England, it is Kwagga Smith preferred at No 8, smaller and without the body of Test experience upon which to draw, but a danger in open space and at the breakdown.
After the impact of the men tagged the “Bomb Squad” in Japan, the strength of the South African bench may also be telling – particularly a fearsome quartet of tight five replacements that suggests there will be no drop-off come the shift change at the abattoir. Sprinklings of stardust from Cheslin Kolbe and Faf de Klerk’s irrepressible pestering could also prove decisive.
“You can’t go into a Test match playing South Africa without trying to match their physicality,” said Gatland on Thursday. “Test match rugby is all about the physical battle but then it’s about making sure you are smart and capitalise on chances.
“We don’t think we are going to fall away. We think as the game goes on, we are going to get stronger and stronger.”
South Africa felt so short of suitable preparation that they loaded the “A” side to such an extent that it was, in essence, a fourth Test match, played with the sort of intensity anticipated for Saturday’s opener. As a dress rehearsal it proved instructive, and dealt the Lions their sole defeat of the tour, but it would be foolish to suggest that both sides laid all of their cards upon the table.
In the immediate aftermath, an upbeat Gatland felt it was just the challenge that his side needed. He had confidence that the Lions had a stronger hand still to be revealed than the Springboks – though, as he emphasised, it is one thing knowing what is coming, and quite another stopping it.
The Lions’ visits to South Africa have tended to be among their most memorable and hard-fought. History suggests it would be extremely tough to come back should they lose the first Test; this series will be very different but a fascinating battle of mental and physical strength is set to begin.
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