Springboks banking on reputations, Lions counting on form
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — After months of uncertainty and misgivings, the business end of the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa gets underway with the opening test against the Springboks on Saturday.
COVID-19 has blanketed the tour for more than a year, casting grave doubts as to whether the tour will go ahead, and even whether it should. The merit of landing in a South Africa suffering through a third wave of the coronavirus, and just when a former president was jailed and sparked the worst violence since the end of apartheid, is worth arguing.
But the teams have navigated through both -- not without scars -- and look to take a significant step to series success in the first of three tests at Cape Town Stadium.
The venue was confirmed this week as the stage for the entire series due to the risk of returning to Johannesburg, the epicenter of South Africa's current wave, although no fans will be at any of the tests for the first time in the Lions' 133-year history.
Right until this week, several South Africa players, including captain Siya Kolisi, were in doubt because of a virus outbreak in their camp, but he was surprisingly declared fit and named in the starting XV to lead the hosts in only their second test since winning the Rugby World Cup in November 2019.
Kolisi leads a team that includes 11 starters from that 32-12 final win over England in Japan, amongst them several players who were impacted by the outbreak in the Bok camp over the last few weeks.
Question marks surround the durability of Kolisi and hooker Bongi Mbonambi, who are both just out of 10 days in isolation. Mbonambi has downplayed talk of them being underdone, saying criticism will fuel their fire.
But the lack of match minutes for flyhalf Handre Pollard and wing Makazole Mapimpi has prompted coach Jacques Nienaber to shelve the “Bomb Squad” tactic that was successfully used in the Rugby World Cup, where they went with a six-two forwards-backs split in the reserves to continue overpowering opponents. Nienaber has reverted to five-three, so the backline is well covered if a player falters.
It's the same backline from the World Cup final, and the same forward pack which started against Georgia three weeks ago in the Springboks' only test since Japan. Nienaber says he won't hesitate to pull his stars if they struggle.
"The moment they don't fulfil their role due to tiredness or due to COVID or not having been exposed to rugby for some time, that is when we will make a substitution,” he says.
Fitness hasn't been as big an issue for the Lions, except for Alun Wyn Jones, the captain who was reluctantly left behind in Britain then brought back after what's been dubbed a "miracle” recovery from a dislocated left shoulder. Coach Warren Gatland showed his deep faith in Jones by restoring the captaincy to him from Conor Murray, and starting the lock in the test after only 27 minutes of game time.
Jones, the first Lion in the professional era to play 10 tests, says what's he's overcome has strengthened his determination.
“To be here now and taking the knocks and bumps and being in amongst it with the group, it means more," he says, "I am not going to lie.”
Playing Jones was not Gatland's only big call. He demoted 2017 Lions starting backs Murray, Owen Farrell and Liam Williams to the reserves, and dropped forwards Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, and Taulupe Faletau altogether. Even leading try-scorer Josh Adams couldn't make the bench.
Scotland hasn't had a starter in a Lions test on tour since 2001. Now it has three, all in the backline: Ali Price, South African-born wing Duhan van der Merwe, and Stuart Hogg. Other hard choices were hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and No. 8 Jack Conan.
Gatland believes the fact so many Lions put themselves in contention shows they approach the test with form, conviction and, key in this first test, fitness.
“We are in a great position from a conditioning point of view, so we are not going to fall away,” Gatland says. ”We think as the game goes on we are going to get stronger and stronger.”
He needs to be right, again, as the Lions have never won the series in South Africa after losing the first test.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Kwagga Smith, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Ox Nche. Reserves: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Lood de Jager, Rynhardt Elstadt, Herschel Jantjies, Elton Jantjies, Damian Willemse.
British and Irish Lions: Stuart Hogg, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Robbie Henshaw, Duhan van der Merwe, Danny Biggar, Ali Price; Jack Conan, Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Tadhg Furlong, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Wyn Jones. Reserves: Ken Owens, Rory Sutherland, Kyle Sinckler, Tadhg Beirne, Hamish Watson, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Liam Williams.
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