For a British & Irish Lions side seeking encouragement before their series with South Africa, there are worse starting places than the Cape of Good Hope. Defeating the world champions on their own turf will be some achievement but if the 2021 Lions cannot be optimistic on the eve of the first Test, there would have been no point in them flying south.
As they attempt to stitch together their latest technicolour dreamcoat from four separate nations, is it an omen that the last triumphant Lions series in South Africa, in 1997, also kicked off in Cape Town? The Springboks, furthermore, have not managed a Test victory in the Mother City for seven years. Among those to have tasted separate success here have been England and Ireland, both of whom edged games their hosts were expecting to win.
Which may be why they have sounded deliberately bullish this week. Warren Gatland, clearly mindful of how the Lions’ destiny was shaped by failing to stampede out of the gate in the first Tests of 2005, 2009 and 2017, has named a team that will not die wondering, and his trusty forwards coach Robin McBryde was similarly upbeat on a glorious sunny pre-match Cape morning. “‘Dominating’ is a big word to be using when you come up against the world champions but we’ll have a good dig at it,” insisted McBryde, buoyed by the Lions’ scrum and maul resilience against South Africa A last week.
Beneath the imposing backdrop of Table Mountain, in summary, the Lions know they will need to be brutal to shift the giant immovable objects in green. A can-do attitude will also be vital, something Gatland’s squad have been employing for weeks. It is hard to emphasise just how abnormal this tour has been, from the Covid-19 confinements to the dispiriting absence of travelling spectators. To have reached the Test series at all feels like a minor miracle.
With 337 people killed in this month’s rioting across South Africa and the country beset by Covid unease and civil unrest, it clearly pays to retain a sense of perspective. Rugby, naturally enough, is not top of every local priority list just now. As compelling weekend distractions go, however, little compares to the first Test of a Lions expedition, with all the delicious anticipation it invites.
Not only does the rarity value give it added resonance but so does the sense of mountainous expectation. Twenty-four years on from Jim Telfer’s famous “Everest” exhortations, Gatland’s men are all too aware of the physical threat posed by their hosts. “This is your Mount Kilimanjaro, boys” has a somewhat different ring to it but making it out of Africa with a series win will be as rugged a challenge as any.
Gatland, as it happens, has already climbed Kilimanjaro back in 2010 and also knows there is no such thing as a soft launch to a Lions series. For all those evocative memories of 1997, the Boks’ set-piece demolition of England when it mattered in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final in Yokohama has rather more relevance from the Lions management’s perspective. “We saw how much of a part the scrum could play in the World Cup final,” confirmed McBryde. “Every scrum became an area of pressure put on England, an opportunity for the Springboks to show pictures of dominance.
“As much as we can take a lot of positives out of that A game, we know there is another level in the Springboks. But there’s another level in us as well. The proof will come this weekend. I know Warren is drawing on the experience of 12 years ago, when the level of intensity caught the Lions cold in that first Test. He’s making sure we don’t fall in that trap again.”
Admittedly the 2009 Lions did not catch many breaks but that narrow 2-1 series defeat remains highly instructive. Underperform even for 40 minutes early in the series and it can be tough to recover, regardless of squad quality. At some stage the Boks, whose 23-man squad contains 21 World Cup winners, will come hunting for close-quarter weakness, with or without the ball. Hang in there long enough, though, and Gatland believes his squad have the fitness and tactical tools to finish the job.
Depth-wise, he rates this Lions party as highly as any of the four with which he has previously been involved, though the Lions have fewer obvious world-class gamebreakers. Where is the red-shirted Cheslin Kolbe, Faf De Klerk or even Pieter-Steph du Toit? The Lions do have Maro Itoje, Tadhg Furlong, Tom Curry and the redoubtable Alun Wyn Jones but they will be relying more on collective excellence than individual brilliance.
On the plus side is a togetherness which should not be underestimated and a belief that South Africa, with Covid having curtailed their preparations, are not as impregnable as they might like to think. All three Tests, rather than just one, will be now be played at sea level. The Springboks (leaving aside last week’s South Africa A game) have never played a capped Test in the swanky new Cape Town Stadium which has superseded the old, atmospheric Newlands. Their head coach, Jacques Nienaber, had been Rassie Erasmus’s assistant for years but this is the first time his name has officially been above the head coach’s door.
If the Lions can start well, therefore, it could be a thunderclap of a Test. As Sonny Bill Williams can testify, staying onside with the referee – Australia’s Nic Berry, a former Wasps teammate of Elliot Daly’s – will also be critical. Gatland has picked a team to play with tempo and to counter when the opportunity arises but, first and foremost, the Lions need to be competitive at the breakdown, not give away any set-piece freebies and, to quote McBryde, “challenge them to go to a Plan B”.
Deal with the Boks’ aerial bombs as well and it is more than possible to imagine the Lions grabbing a 1-0 series advantage. In that event it would be naive to imagine South Africa not frenziedly bludgeoning their way back into the series next weekend, setting up a sudden-death showdown between two sides with few secrets left and, potentially, even fewer unbruised bodies.
At this range South Africa should probably be considered narrow favourites, as long as Handré Pollard remains at No 10. Pollard is the key link in the Springbok chain – strong in defence, an excellent goalkicker and tactically astute – but without him in the control tower South Africa are a different side. So can these hopeful 2021 Lions become Cape crusaders? At the very least they will give it a good rattle.