First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
As of this weekend, it has been 524 days since the Springboks last played a Test match. The glorious night in Yokohama on 2 November 2019, when Siya Kolisi lifted the Webb Ellis Cup after the Boks thrashed England 32-12, seems a distant memory.
A Lions tour is the biggest rugby event outside a World Cup, given that the Lions only travel every four years and come to South Africa every 12 years. In an ideal world the Boks would have played 12 Tests after winning the Rugby World Cup (RWC) in 2019, before the first Test against the Lions on 24 July 2021.
By the time the first Test against the British & Irish Lions takes place, 630 days would have elapsed since that triumphant moment in Japan. It’s unlikely, though, that so many days will pass between Tests, because the Boks are set to play two warm-up games before the Lions series.
Tests against the United States and Argentina are tentatively scheduled although not confirmed. It is certainly not enough preparation, and it’s debatable whether those two opponents would even be the right type of examination for such a huge series. But those are the cards coach Jacques Nienaber has been dealt.
And if Nienaber is anything, he’s a realist. He, along with director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and the rest of the coaching staff, have spent months planning a range of scenarios.
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They have war-gamed bio-bubbles and matches in Britain, in South Africa and even at a neutral venue such as Dubai. As one Bok insider said: “We will be ready to play the Lions on the N1 highway. We just want to play.”
Felix Jones, the European-based Irish assistant coach, has been earning his keep speaking to, and keeping tabs on, Boks based in Britain, Ireland and France. Both their form and the Bok management’s expectations are constantly relayed to players in the mix for selection, and players’ inboxes have been regularly peppered with data from Nienaber and his team.
The 2021 Lions series will be the first in which the outcome may be decided by who used Microsoft Teams and Zoom most effectively. Welcome to the Covid-19 world.
“A lot of background planning has already been done, but we are now looking forward to shifting our focus and preparation into a higher gear because time is of the essence,” Nienaber said this week.
Whereas the foundation has been set behind closed doors and in private online meetings, Nienaber will take the next step by meeting with players in groups, for the first time since he was appointed head coach in early 2020.
A series of local alignment camps has been confirmed over the next few weeks before South Africa’s leading four franchises head to Britain, where they will be based for the Rainbow Cup.
“There’s a lot of excitement, from players to coaches and the management staff, to finally get together and kick-start our preparations for what promises to be a very busy and challenging international season,” said Nienaber.
“We have purposefully kept the groups small so we can drill into as much specifics as possible.
“The players will get a lot of logistics, technical and tactical detail to absorb, so by the time we’ve completed this alignment roundup, they will all be up to speed on what exactly is required from them during their upcoming club and franchise games and the training camps leading up the Lions Test series.”
Large Bok training camp in UK
At this stage it appears that the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers will be based in Bristol for the Rainbow Cup, in a biosecure bubble, as they take on teams from the expanded PRO16 tournament. The bio-bubble will serve another purpose: it will become one large Springbok training camp.
Given Erasmus’ reputation for innovation, the Rainbow Cup set-up will actually be a huge boost for the Boks if it happens. There is still a small question mark hanging over that tournament and whether it will go ahead, though.
It has been a stressful time with so much past and future uncertainty. The Lions tour is set to go ahead; the Rainbow Cup is set to go ahead; warm-up Tests are set to go ahead, yet no fixtures have been released for any of these tours and matches. And the clock is ticking.
“We are planning as if these are going [ahead] because that’s the only thing we can do,” Erasmus said at a recent media briefing.
“If there is a scenario where it appears we will be on the back foot, we won’t object because we want to play the Lions series.
“The frustration has been unbelievable, but we [SA Rugby and the Boks] are not alone in that. We can’t compare this to people who have lost jobs, families who have lost loved ones and nurses and doctors working on the frontline. But the players are human too, and they need a little bit of hope.”
Erasmus described the upcoming alignment exercises as the next phase of the Springboks’ strategic planning and preparation as the squad prepares for a return to Test rugby.
“With a very busy and demanding international season looming, it is important we get everyone aligned as soon as possible,” said Erasmus.
“Although Jacques and his coaching staff have been in constant communication with the players throughout the past 15 months or so – keeping tabs on their performances, injury recovery and general wellbeing – we are now very excited and looking forward to meeting the players in a familiar team environment.
“The local players will meet up with the coaches, medical and conditioning staff and rest of the management over the next two weeks, while we have similar plans for our European and Japanese-based players, with Felix Jones hosting sessions in the UK and France and the Japanese based-players joining us on virtual meetings,” explained Erasmus.
Finally though, the Boks are set to emerge from the virtual into the real world. And it’s a much-changed place compared to 524 days ago. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
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