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Rugby’s brutal battle: The delicate art of choosing a Test team

Steven Kitshoff of South Africa runs with the ball during the Rugby Union international match between South Africa and Georgia at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on 2 July 2021 in Pretoria. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Boks show their teeth ahead of tactical arm-wrestle against British & Irish Lions. DM168 unpacks the battles that will determine the outcome.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Rassie Erasmus and Warren Gatland were in agreement on a number of points following South Africa A’s 17-13 win against the British & Irish Lions. Where they differed was on the importance of the midweek result.

The Lions coach felt the game amounted to little more than a physical and mental warm-up. Erasmus, by contrast, praised the local team’s character as they held on to claim an unexpected win against a more fancied and battle-hardened Lions outfit.

We should expect more mind games from Gatland in the lead-up to the first Test. Erasmus and head coach Jacques Nienaber – who recently rejoined the Bok squad after a Covid-enforced hiatus – are also likely to oblige with a few pre-game barbs.

Behind the scenes, both sets of coaches will prepare their charges for an intricate and brutal chess match. DM168 unpacks the battles that will determine the outcome. 

Setting the platform up front

The Lions should be mindful of what transpired the last time the team toured South Africa. Coach Ian McGeechan and then forwards coach Gatland favoured a more mobile pack for the first Test of the series, because they felt that the Boks would pose no significant threat at the scrums.

The miscalculation proved to be costly. The SA pack – spearheaded by a young Beast Mtawarira – destroyed the Lions at this set piece and went on to harness the resultant momentum to secure an emphatic win.

Twelve years later, England underestimated the Boks in similar fashion ahead of the 2019 World Cup final. South Africa dominated at the scrum and capitalised on the ensuing penalties to move up the field and build a commanding lead.

It will be interesting to see how the set-piece battle develops in the coming series. The Boks should be favourites, although their best tighthead, Frans Malherbe, has been sidelined for some time since returning a positive PCR Covid-19 test.

Their best tight-five combination – Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager – hasn’t been deployed since the 2019 final in Yokohama.

Who will Gatland favour as his starting front-row combination? Ireland tighthead Tadhg Furlong will pose the biggest threat to the Boks, and his tussle with Kitshoff promises to be one of the series’ most absorbing head-to-head contests. Furlong will need some support in his quest for dominance, though, and it is here that the visitors may be vulnerable. 

Win the contact, charm the ref

The South Africa A side certainly troubled the Lions in this department on 14 July. Franco Mostert has done a formidable job in the absence of De Jager – another player who has been sidelined due to a positive PCR test – while Etzebeth is getting back to his disruptive best.

The good news for the Lions is that Alun Wyn Jones has arrived in South Africa. Jones sustained what many believed to be a tour-ending shoulder injury in the warm-up match against Japan on 26 June. The 157-cap lock has since recovered and is expected to replace Conor Murray as the team skipper at some point on this tour. It’s debatable whether Jones will offer a stronger option at the lineout, maul or kickoff. Maro Itoje and Iain Henderson have been in imperious form, and Adam Beard – a late addition to the squad – showed against South Africa A that he has the strength and mentality to compromise that South African mauling juggernaut.

None of those players boasts Jones’s experience and presence. That gravitas has swayed many a referee over the past decade, and the Lions will be counting on Jones’s influence in what are likely to be three tightly contested Tests.

The Boks – in the guise of the South Africa A team – made a statement at the breakdown on 14 July and looked well placed ahead of another important battle. They will need to address their own discipline – they conceded two yellow cards in the space of a minute against the Lions – and they will also need an experienced campaigner to be in the ear of the official when the opposition repeatedly infringes.

It remains to be seen whether Siya Kolisi – yet another who is subject to return-to-play protocols after a 10-day period of Covid-enforced isolation – will lead the Boks in the first Test. First-choice flyhalf Handré Pollard is in a similar position, while another leader in Duane Vermeulen (ankle injury) may not feature at all, across the series.

If these men are absent, Lukhanyo Am, who has done a fine job in leading the Sharks over the past two seasons and slotted in well at the helm of South Africa A recently, will have a potentially series-shaping job to do.

Alun Wyn Jones of the Lions takes on Joe Moody during the Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park in 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Rising to the occasion

The Lions have brought a number of high-ball specialists to South Africa to combat the Boks’ kicking game. Their own kickers have enjoyed mixed results since touching down in the country.

Murray’s box-kicks have been too deep, while others – such as Owen Farrell in the clash against South Africa A – have only succeeded in kicking directly to the opposition back three and inviting a counterattack, a highly counterproductive strategy when the opposition includes finishers of the quality of Cheslin Kolbe.

The Boks boast excellent kicking options in Faf de Klerk, Pollard and Willie le Roux, as well as a world-class chasing line. They may be vulnerable, though, if one or more of these men are unavailable.

No other scrumhalf or fullback in the current squad is capable of operating at the same tactical level as De Klerk and Le Roux.

Morné Steyn showed recently that he might fill the gap left by Pollard and marshal South Africa’s march for territory – but it must be a concern that Steyn hasn’t played a Test since 2016. 

Cheslin Kolbe of South Africa during the Rugby World Cup 2019 final match between England and South Africa at International Stadium Yokohama in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / Gallo Images)

Holding the line

Many criticise the Boks for a one-dimensional attack, as they view the South African maul as the primary threat.

The truth is that the Boks use their defence as an attacking weapon, flying off the line and competing at the breakdown to force turnovers, which are subsequently fed to counterattacking specialists such as Kolbe and Le Roux.

Their approach from the set pieces, of course, should not be underestimated. They generated a lot of momentum when the likes of Damian de Allende crossed the gain line in the fixture against the Lions. The visitors will have to play with more accuracy and intent than they did against South Africa A if they are going to have any say – on defence or attack – in this series.

Am and enforcers such as Etzebeth will have important defensive roles to play, but the hosts may be without their talisman. Vermeulen has been the “defence captain” for a number of years, and his value to the team transcends the individual contributions he makes at the gain line, at the maul and at the breakdown.

Can Kwagga Smith fulfil that crucial role in a Test, or will rookie No 8 Jasper Wiese be up to the task? The recent defensive performance was encouraging, though, as the hosts conceded just 13 points over the 80 minutes – even though they spent nearly 10 minutes with only 13 men on the park.

Deploying the bomb squad

The Boks utilised their matchday squad to perfection at the 2019 World Cup, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them using their replacements in a similar manner over the next three weeks.

The Covid situation in the camp as well as a few injuries may limit their options in terms of experience and quality. At the World Cup, Erasmus and Nienaber had the luxury of including a world-class tight five and loose forward among a six-two bench split.

On this occasion, they will have to rely on reserves who have enjoyed less exposure to international rugby and are unfamiliar with the unique demands of finishing big Tests.

If Frans Steyn bounces back from his current Covid setback, he will in all likelihood cover positions 10 to 15 from the bench. And if the Boks’ primary goal-kicker goes down, you would expect Steyn – a two-time World Cup winner who thrives under pressure – to enter the fray and slot a potentially match-winning kick.

In Steyn’s absence, Damian Willemse has been developed as a contingency in that utility back role.

Although Willemse is undoubtedly talented, he is yet to establish himself as a regular in the Bok matchday squad and is yet to prove himself as a man for the big occasion.

The Lions have found a solution to their own No 23 problem, with Elliot Daly set to occupy the utility spot. Finn Russell is set to miss one or two Tests because of injury.

The tourists have two excellent flyhalf options in Dan Biggar and Farrell – and the latter certainly proved his mettle when he slotted a late match-winner for the Lions in the second Test against the All Blacks in 2017.

A tactical arm-wrestle may well be decided by one goal kick. Morné Steyn clinched the series against the Lions in 2009 via a last-gasp penalty in the second Test. Pollard kicked what was arguably the most important penalty of the 2019 World Cup campaign in the latter stages of the semifinal against Wales.

South Africa would do well to win most of the key battles over the next 240 minutes of Test rugby. History tells us, however, that one successful or failed goal attempt often determines the outcome of rugby’s greatest wars. 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 until 24 July 2021. From 31 July 2021, DM168 will be available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores.

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