After five warm-up games in South Africa, the British & Irish Lions are ready to front up to the immense physical challenge of the Springboks in Saturday’s first Test in Cape Town.
The Lions have made short work of the Sigma Lions, the Sharks (twice!) and the Stormers who, due to Covid restrictions and Currie Cup commitments, have not put up much of a challenge.
Their only loss was against a South Africa ‘A’ side that was very much a Springbok line-up as the hosts look to get Test match ready having played just one Test match since their 2019 World Cup triumph.
Sam Warburton, Ronan O’Gara, Maggie Alphonsi and Sir Ian McGeechan cast their eyes over the key areas to see who may have the advantage ahead of the clash in Cape Town.
South Africa pride themselves on their set-piece and have a formidable unit that likes to physically dominate their opposition to get them on the front foot.
Their World Cup win against England was based on this dominance and will be vital to the outcome of the Test series.
Sir Ian McGeechan knows a thing or two about neutralising that threat having successfully done that in the victorious 1997 tour.
Twenty-four years later, the Lions coaching legend says the scrum is too tight to call but does not see it as a negative for the Lions: “I think that the scrums will be 50-50, the Lions will have to work hard, but what came out of last Wednesday’s clash against South Africa ‘A’ was the strength of the scrum.
“I think the Lions have two genuine front rows to keep the pressure up for the whole eight minutes.”
Despite South Africa’s flawless lineout in the 2019 World Cup, Maggie Alphonsi believes that the Lions have the edge and the Springboks could be rusty in this area.
Against South Africa A locks Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert – who are likely to start on Saturday, the Lions pilfered two lineouts.
“I am going to go for the Lions based on the consistency we have seen so far,” explained Alphonsi.
“Maro Itoje has been incredibly strong and got some steals. We have no seen a large amount from South Africa so it depends on how they go as well.”
Both sides have a plethora of world class back rowers to call upon, and despite the Springboks missing No. 8 Duane Vermeulen to injury, Sam Warburton believes this is one area that the Boks are ahead of the Lions.
“From what we have seen so far, South Africa have the edge.
“Can the Lions fix this area before the first Test? I don’t know, but we can only be better from the hit out against South Africa ‘A’.
“But then so can the Springboks. The Lions can work hard to fix the problems, but South Africa are going to be working on exactly the same thing.”
Another area where South Africa excelled during the 2019 World Cup was their defence. Jacques Nienaber was the man behind that success as their defence coach and will have a few tricks up his sleeve now he has taken over from Rassie Erasmus as the head coach.
However, Ronan O’Gara believes the Lions could have the edge and must look to exploit the likes of full-back Willie Le Roux under the high ball.
“We saw in the World Cup that defence was the key for everything South Africa did,” said O’Gara.
“It’s the philosophy of Nienaber – you pressurise the skill set of the opposition. I do think there is a massive opportunity for the Lions to go after Le Roux in the air or look to isolate him.
“I think if you are very creative, then you can exploit what they do, but what they have done in the past has been exceptionally well.
“From my time in the Southern Hemisphere, the Northern Hemisphere are well ahead defensively and I think it will be a massive area of advantage to the Lions.”
McGeechan believes South Africa’s more structured approach to attack can be contained and that the Lions have shown that they can attack and make the most of space.
“I think the Lions have more variety and the players that the Lions choose can play slightly differently. South Africa play a much more structured game in attack which can be held – a lot of it is around physicality.
“I think if they are going to change their game, then it will be a risk for them. The Lions have shown that they can get to those outside spaces, create space and look very dangerous.”
The battle of the boot is an intriguing battle as well with the Lions having Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly to call upon to keep the scoreboard ticking over. However, South Africa are not too shabby in this department either with Handre Pollard and Morne Steyn in their ranks.
“I would be surprised if either team dip under 80 per cent [kicking success rate],” said O’Gara.
“It is a massive strength for both sides.”
The impact of the Bok bench during the World Cup was a major key to their success as they used their players to keep up the intensity for the full 80 minutes. Known as the ‘Bomb Squad’ they often came on to raise the physicality against their tiring opponents.
However, Alphonsi believes South Africa’s lack of game time means the Lions bench will have the edge: “We have seen in the last three games that the Lions have a very strong second-half finish.
“I think the Lions have a impact bench that can make a difference.”
Nothing gets the body and mind ready for playing Test-match rugby than Test-match rugby and in this area, South Africa are well behind. Having just played one game against Georgia, plus that South Africa ‘A’ game, the Boks could be undercooked.
As mentioned above, the Lions finished very strongly in that game while their opponents were hanging on for the whistle.
“I think they [Lions] finished really well on Wednesday and they have played a lot more Test-match rugby than SA have in the last few months,” confirmed Warburton.
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