Mother City: Springboks and British & Irish Lions series will be won in the gutters and on the dance floor
The Boks and the British & Irish Lions Tests are expected to be brutal and physical, and the Boks are unlikely to move away completely from their traditional strengths.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
A tour fraught with setbacks and uncertainty received a boost this past week, when SA Rugby confirmed that all three Tests between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions would be staged in Cape Town. The desperate Covid-19 situation in Gauteng – as well as the violent protests that have affected large parts of the province – has forced authorities to move the second and third Tests to the Mother City.
At long last, the battle lines have been drawn. Over the next three weekends, an epic battle – which many former players believe is more physically and mentally taxing than a World Cup – will unfold in the shadow of Table Mountain.
“This series represents the pinnacle for any South African rugby player,” says the 79-cap veteran Bismarck du Plessis, who recently returned from a six-year stint in France. The hooker was a key player for the Springbok side that beat the Lions 2-1 in 2009.
“It’s hard enough to make the squad for a World Cup tournament, which is staged once every four years. You need some luck, with regard to injuries and indeed the timing in your career, to make the cut for a Lions series, which is played once in a generation in South Africa.
“Four unions competing as one… It’s a massive honour for those players to represent the Lions, and it’s an honour for teams like the Boks to play against them. And once you get that chance as a Bok, you realise why it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.”
An unrivalled level of physicality
Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, another member of the Bok side that prevailed in 2009, remembers growing up in Zimbabwe and watching South African rugby on TV. The 1997 tour to South Africa – won 2-1 by the Lions – showcased the series’ unique selling point.
“What struck me about the matches between South Africa and the Lions was the brutality of it all,” the former prop says. “It seemed to be on another level to anything else in rugby.
“Scott Gibbs ran over Os du Randt at one point in that series. It was something I struggled to process: a centre running over a loosehead prop! This is how the Lions were built up in my mind from a young age, and why I had so much respect for them going into the 2009 series.”
In 2009, the Lions took one look at the team sheet – which listed Mtawarira as the starting loosehead and skipper John Smit as the makeshift tighthead – and declared that the scrum battle and ultimately the first Test was theirs to lose.
“And you know what? We took it personally,” Mtawarira says with a laugh.
“I remember sitting there in the change room before the game. The front-rowers were getting fired up. Bismarck told me that I had been picked for a reason.
“He said that this was my time, my moment.
“The training that week had been so intense, especially around the scrums and collisions. We were going out there to be as physical as possible. By the time that first whistle blew at Kings Park, I was ready to get stuck in. I unleashed the beast, so to speak, from the very first tackle.”
Mtawarira out-scrummed his opposite number Phil Vickery and the Boks harnessed the resultant momentum to move upfield and accumulate points. In the end, they won the first Test more comfortably than the 26-21 score suggests.
The Lions unleashed an almighty response in the next fixture. And for much of the game, the Boks were forced to play catch-up.
Schalk Burger was handed a yellow card for attempted eye-gouging in the first minute – and the flanker has since confirmed that it was a clear example of uncontrolled aggression.
The Boks rallied in the latter stages to win the match and seal the series.
The memories of that brutal encounter have not faded with the years.
“I’ll never forget how they stood up in the second game at Loftus Versfeld,” says Du Plessis, who was one of the toughest players of that era.
“Morné Steyn slotted a penalty at the end to win the series, and I remember walking off the field with my hands in the air. The next day, I felt like I had been in a car crash. It was one of the most physical games of my life.”
Taking the opposition to the gutters
There are fewer off-the-ball incidents today than there were back in 2009. And yet, as Smit suggests, the collisions are bigger than ever before.
“The game is so fast and hard these days, I feel sore just watching it,” the former Bok captain says.
“We spent a great deal of time on analysis back in 2009, but the level of detail that goes into preparation these days is unbelievable. Just looking at what Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber did at the 2019 World Cup … it was on another level. I guess that you have to be searching for new things all the time because the level of defence these days is incredible. You have to do something special to get past it.
“Some things don’t change, though. You look at the great South African teams of the past, the Boks and some of the franchises that have had success. They’ve all been physical, and they’ve all succeeded in taking their opponents to a place that they didn’t want to go.”
Erasmus has often spoken about the psychological effect a robust approach can have on a set of opponents who may be better suited to an expansive strategy. Before the World Cup quarterfinal against Japan, he made the comment – which was subsequently immortalised in the documentary Chasing the Sun: “They want to take us to the dance floor and we want to take them to the gutters.” It’s a comment that speaks to the coaches’ and players’ unshakeable faith in the team’s traditional strengths.
There’s been so much hype around the current set of matches between the Boks and Lions, and whether both teams will clatter and collide as they did in 1997 and 2009.
Just this past week, former England and Lions hooker Brian Moore urged the tourists to outwit rather than outmuscle the South Africans.
Coach Warren Gatland – who toured the country as a forwards coach in 2009 – has selected a touring party that includes a number of athletic forwards who tend to thrive in a looser contest. Many believe that the visitors will indeed look to vary their attack.
The Boks, of course, look set to persist with a strategy that led them to the 2019 Rugby Championship and World Cup titles. Although Nienaber has replaced Erasmus as head coach, and should make a few subtle changes to the blueprint, the Boks are unlikely to move completely away from their traditional strengths.
“It’s a series that’s usually determined by the forwards,” says Bok lock Lood de Jager. “The Lions have to nullify the Bok pack to have any chance of winning.
“They will try to disrupt us in areas like the scrum, maul and lineout. They may try to take us on and dominate us. I’ve got a feeling that they might fight fire with fire.”
There is a danger, of course, that a player on either side will overstep the mark and cost his team points, a result or even the series.
The Boks were fortunate that Burger’s transgression didn’t lead to a loss in the second match of the 2009 series. In the second game of the 2017 series in New Zealand, however, the All Blacks went down after Sonny Bill Williams was shown a red card for a reckless tackle. The third game ended in a draw and the series was shared.
Since then, World Rugby has clamped down on reckless and illegal play. While everybody agrees that intentional acts of aggression and deliberate shots to the head have no place in the game and warrant the severest of sanctions, many believe that accidental contact with the face or head should not result in a potentially game-altering red card.
“They’ve tightened up the rules since we played,” notes Du Plessis. “On the one hand, you understand that they’ve got to look after the players. I just hope that they don’t lose that physical element, and that matches and series aren’t decided by one incident – as was the case when Sonny Bill got sent off in 2017.
“I really cherished my opportunity to test myself against the Lions in 2009. I hope that we see this Test series living up to the physical hype – because it is something unique and hopefully something that will never be lost.”
Just as the players will walk the tightrope between controlled physicality and unbridled aggression, the officials must strike the right balance between player welfare and common sense. 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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