South Africa v British and Irish Lions - team and predictions
SECONDS OUT, ROUND ONE: To milk that iconic phrase of the American master of ceremonies Michael Buffer: ‘Let’s Get Ready To Rumble!!!’
The pre-match banter and criticism from the two sets of coaching staff are now meaningless.
It comes down to the 46 men on the field when the much-anticipated three-Test British and Irish Lions series gets underway at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.
In more than a century of B&I Lions tours, there has never been a series that remotely resembles the off-the-wall situation the 2021 version finds itself in.
However, once the first whistle goes, it will be a titanic battle between the tourists and the world champion Springboks – at a stadium stripped of spectators.
The players will emerge from bio-secure bubbles in a country hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, by violent riots that left more than 200 people dead.
Springbok skipper Siyamthanda Kolisi put it in a nutshell when he said his job is to “play the best game I can” and that he is not concerned with all the sideshows.
“We are living in times of uncertainty,” Kolisi said of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent political upheavals and looting that ravaged large parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
“My only job is to play and do what the team requires of me. All the other stuff is out of my control.”
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Despite all the comments from the B&I Lions camp – about dented egos and supposed bias match officials – Kolisi made it clear the battle will be won between the four white lines on the pitch, not in the dressing room or pre-match media briefings.
“We have to adapt to everything that is happening,” he said about all three Tests being played in the Cape Town bio-bubble.
“We would have loved to have played all the games as they were scheduled.
“However, it is what it is and I don’t think it [playing all the games in one stadium] gives anyone an advantage.
“It all comes down to Saturday, which team’s plan works the best.
“We are going to ensure we leave it all out there on the field.”
Assistant coach Mzwandile Stick spoke of the need to be able to adapt on the day, adding that both teams will face “the same challenges”.
He felt the Boks – with the bulk of the 2019 World Cup-winning squad intact – will be equipped to cope with the situation.
“These guys know what it takes,” Stick told a pre-match media briefing, adding: “They are professional enough to understand when to switch on.”
B&I Lions coach Gatland believes the Springboks may be “underdone” and that the tourists had “dented their egos” by dominating the forward exchanges last week – despite losing 13-17 to a South Africa ‘A’ team featuring 13 of Saturday’s Test squad.
“In that ‘A’ game we were very happy with how our line-out worked and how our maul defence went,” he said of countering two of the Springboks’ supposed strengths.
“In the scrums towards the end of the game, we felt we really dominated them.”
Gatland added that he doubts the Boks can produce any variations or new tricks.
He said the home team will most likely opt for more ‘brawn’ on Saturday.
“I have been incredibly impressed with the way we have defended on this tour and we have continued to improve in that department,” the B&I Lions coach said.
“We haven’t conceded a line-out maul try or a pick-and-go try.
“That is one aspect we have worked really hard on.
“If we stop them from dominating in those areas, they will have to go to something else.”
He reiterated an earlier statement that he expects the Boks to “kick a lot” – as many as 40-odd kicks by the home team.
“That aerial battle is going to be key and we need to ensure we are smart about how we manage that.”
Players to watch
For South Africa: The Springbok scrum was under pressure in the ‘A’ Team game, meaning the front row of Trevor Nyakane, Mbongeni Mbonambi and Retshegofaditswe Nche faces an enormous challenge. Apart from Nyakane and Nche, who did not feature in the World Cup Final in 2019, the pack shows two other significant changes. Albertus Smith comes in at No.8 for Duane Vermeulen and Franco Mostert starts at lock for Lodewyk de Jager, who plays off the bench after only recently recovering from a lengthy injury lay-off. Smith and Mostert’s contribution will be key to the Boks’ hopes of physical domination.
For the British and Irish Lions: You can start with Stuart Hogg at fullback, finally getting a B&I Lions Test cap. Dan Biggar, at flyhalf, is another player that could make life uncomfortable for the Springboks. Alun Wyn Jones’ miracle recovery from a dislocated shoulder raises questions about his physicality, while Courtney Lawes at blindside flank offers a significant additional line-out option.
Head to head
The fun starts on the wing – the hot-stepping Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa) against his compatriot Duhan van der Merwe (B&I Lions), brains versus brawn. The halfback combinations will – by the nature of the game – be key: Handre Pollard and Francois de Klerk (South Africa) against Dan Biggar and Ali Price (B&I Lions). At No.8 we have two very contrasting players – Albertus Smith (South Africa) will pit his Sevens skills against the more traditional loose forward style of Jack Conan (B&I Lions). And we simply can’t look past the set pieces, the scrums in particular – Trevor Nyakane, Mbongeni Mbonambi and Retshegofaditswe Nche (South Africa) versus Tadhg Furlong, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Wyn Jones (B&I Lions).
Most recent results
1974: B&I Lions won 12-3, Cape Town
1974: B&I Lions won 28-9, Pretoria
1974: B&I Lions won 26-9, Port Elizabeth
1974: SA and B&I Lions drew 13-all, Johannesburg
1980: SA won 26-22, Cape Town
1980: SA won 26-19, Bloemfontein
1980: SA won 12-10, Port Elizabeth
1980: B&I Lions won 17-13, Pretoria
1997: B&I Lions won 25-16, Cape Town
1997: B&I Lions won 18-15, Durban
1997: SA won 35-16, Johannesburg
2009: SA won 26-21, Durban
2009: SA won 28-25, Pretoria
2009: B&I Lions won 28-9, Johannesburg
@rugby365com: South Africa by five points
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Francois de Klerk, 8 Albertus Smith, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siyamthanda Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 1 Retshegofaditswe Nche.
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 19 Frans Malherbe, 19 Lodewyk de Jager, 20 Rynhardt Elstadt, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Damian Willemse.
British and Irish Lions: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Ali Price, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Wyn Jones.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Rory Sutherland, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Tadhg Beirne, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Liam Williams.
Date: Saturday, July 24
Venue: Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Kick-off: 18.00 (17.00 BST; 16.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Clear to partly cloudy. High of 18°C, low of 4°C
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Mathieu Raynal (France)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)