Do the Lions have new tricks for Springboks’ ’old dogs’?
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IT was interesting to hear Rassie Erasmus say last Friday that British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has “something up his sleeve” for their tour of South Africa starting next month.
He was referring to the number of Scottish backs partnering with that nation’s head coach Gregor Townsend at the Lions, as well as loose forwards such as Sam Simmonds, Hamish Watson, Tom Curry and Justin Tipuric, who are all built like openside flanks and are quick across the ground.
The surprise omission of more direct players such as England No 8 Billy Vunipola and Ireland’s CJ Stander suggests that Gatland wants to run the Springboks off their feet and slow their ball down at the rucks.
It is clear that the tourists do not want to engage the South Africans in the physicality stakes.
Erasmus’ statement made me think: What will the Boks’ point of difference be against the Lions? That is a complicated question, considering the world champions haven’t played since November 2, 2019, when they won the World Cup final against England in Yokohama.
They haven’t had the opportunity to evolve as they wouldn’t have played for 20 months before the first Test against Georgia on July 2.
The 2019 World Cup campaign was built around a massive pack that was backed-up by a monster bench – the “Bomb Squad” – who just drilled every opposing pack into submission.
Except, of course, in the opening match against the All Blacks, where the slick New Zealanders pounced on a few Bok mistakes with ruthless efficiency by their backs.
The Kiwis generally play a quick game, so has Gatland remembered that from September 2019? Perhaps, as that could be the only way the Lions can topple Siya Kolisi’s team.
So, the Boks’ point of difference cannot just be the Bomb Squad, as that strategy is well-known, and the Lions are seemingly countering it by playing an up-tempo style that will tire the big SA forwards.
Erasmus proved in the final against England, though, that the Boks can mix it up on attack and stretch defences with ball-inhand, with electric finishers out wide in Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe.
New head coach Jacques Nienaber is the former defence guru, but he may need to think up a few variables on attack if their power game doesn’t work.
That’s why there has been an emphasis on “ball-in-play” time in domestic rugby since the Preparation Series, which has continued into the Rainbow Cup.
The locally-based players are now well versed in a fast approach, where the ball is kept alive through passing and even kicking, which has also resulted in a higher fitness standard too.
For that mindset to be established in the 2021 Bok squad, it would mean a number of fresh faces need to be selected, which both Nienaber and Erasmus have already said won’t happen against Georgia, where the best possible team will play.
Let’s hope that the overseas-based “old dogs”, as Erasmus called them, have learnt a few new tricks to keep the Lions at bay.