Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber may be without several of his best players and combinations for the first Test against the British & Irish Lions.
While Nienaber is bound to have a trick or two up their sleeve, the absence of top personnel as well as the team’s relative lack of game time could see South Africa starting the series as underdogs.
In January 2020, Nienaber spoke about his plans to develop an extended squad in the lead-up to the Lions series in mid-2021. The Bok coach hoped to blood new players and combinations in South Africa’s home matches against Scotland and Georgia.
At that stage, the world champions were determined to retain Rugby Championship title and to win all the end-of-year Tests in Europe. At the same time, Nienaber hoped to use all of the big matches as preparation for three Lions Tests – fixtures that are staged once every 12 years in South Africa .
The Covid-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown have laid waste to those plans. While Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus have attempted to find solutions to problems such as the players’ lack of game time, the virus has continued to disrupt the Boks’ preparations.
After the team convened for the two-Test series against Georgia in a bio-secure bubble, 12 players tested positive and the entire group was forced to go into isolation. The second Test against Georgia was eventually cancelled.
So much has changed in the space of two weeks, with the country subjected to another threat in the shape of violent protests in parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. The Boks and Lions have relocated to the Western Cape – which has been less affected by a third wave of Covid-19 infections as well as the politically-charged riots – and it’s likely that all three Tests will be staged at the Cape Town Stadium.
And yet, the Boks continue to play catch-up. Given the Covid-19 status of many players within the camp, Nienaber will be hard-pressed to field a full-strength lineup in the opening game against the Lions on 24 July.
A double header was staged at the Cape Town Stadium this past Saturday. The South Africa A team played the Bulls, before the Lions took on the Stormers several hours later.
The extended Bok squad attended the earlier match to offer their teammates support. It was interesting to note who was among that group in the stands, and indeed – after listening to Nienaber’s explanation about return-to-play protocols later – who might be available for a match that will set the tone for a three-game epic against the Lions.
First-choice players such as flyhalf Handré Pollard, lock Lood de Jager, tighthead Frans Malherbe and utility back Frans Steyn were among the contingent in the stands. There’s so been so much uncertainty around the availability of these players, so in one sense it’s good to know that they have arrived in Cape Town and have rejoined the group after being forced to remain in Johannesburg to complete their 10-day period of isolation. On the other hand, it’s important to note that each of these individuals – as well as others who have been affected – will have to come through a return-to-play programme that can last as long as seven days.
Captain Siya Kolisi, first-choice hooker Bongi Mbonambi and star winger Makazole Mapimpi were conspicuous by their absence. It remains to be seen whether these individuals will complete their return-to-play programmes ahead of the first Test, and whether someone other than the inspirational Kolisi will be tasked with the leading the Boks in the biggest series outside a World Cup.
Nienaber explained that first-choice players who are vital to the game plan and that have an intimate understanding of the systems and structures may be pushed to start against the Lions. It’s not an ideal scenario, though, as players like Kolisi and Pollard are likely to be underdone.
What does appear certain is that the Boks will be without No 8 Duane Vermeulen (ankle injury) and RG Snyman (skin-graft surgery). They will miss Vermeulen’s presence as a leader. If Kolisi and Vermeulen are unavailable, they will have to rely on Lukanyo Am, who is yet to lead the team at Test level.
While Kwagga Smith and Jasper Wiese have filled in for Vermeulen at No 8 over the past few weeks, neither player offers the same all-round impact. Wiese has been in outstanding form for Leicester Tigers, but has just one Test cap to his name.
Nienaber as well as Warren Gatland have spoken at length about how the bench will influence the result of all three Tests. Throughout this tour, the Lions have maintained their levels of intensity deep into the second half. This bodes well for the touring side ahead of a unique challenge against the Boks.
While the Boks are short on match practice and fitness, they do boast a reputation for finishing well. Nienaber has confirmed that the South Africans are likely to persist with six forwards on their bench – a strategy that went a long way towards winning them the 2019 World Cup.
It remains to be seen, though, whether Frans Steyn will occupy that utility role among the reserves, or whether that job will fall to the less experienced Damian Williemse.
It’s understood that the decision to move the second and third Tests from Johannesburg to Cape Town has already been made – although it is yet to be officially confirmed. It’s a no-brainer in terms of player safety, given the Covid-19 situation as well as the incidents of violent rioting in Gauteng. That said, moving those two matches to sea-level will rob the Boks of a significant advantage and may force them to alter their tactics.
Nienaber and Erasmus have a reputation for problem-solving, and their skills will be put to the test in what is an unprecedented situation. It should also be noted that the Boks, throughout their history, have never enjoyed the favourites tag and tend to produce their best performances when their backs are against the wall.
While South Africa are underdogs, they should not be physically or tactically underestimated. England made that mistake ahead of the 2019 World Cup final, and paid a big price.