Fellow South Africans, as we embark on this great journey which is the British and Irish Lions series against the Springboks, it is with a heavy heart that I have to announce the national underdogs heading into the first Test.
And no, it’s not because the ‘A’ team lost to the Bulls. In fact, I’m actually glad that happened so that we are not confused about the strength of our next-in-liners.
I’ve listened to a number of fans’ optimism after our Bok-laden ‘A’ team beat the British and Irish Lions midweek side the other day. I was told that it was almost like a Test match.
And that’s true. But I didn’t want to be the one to say that “almost like” is not a real test. There is a big difference between Wednesday night rugby and Saturday rugby when on tour.
Just like the Springboks tested their fringe players against the Bulls over the weekend, Lions coach Warren Gatland tested a few things against the SA ‘A’ side. In fact, only four players from the side that lost to SA ‘A’ made the run-on XV for the first Test.
The result was an afterthought – for both sides, really.
So while SA will take heart from the victory, I hope it doesn’t give them false confidence.
Say what you want, this national team is undercooked as a unit.
They haven’t played together since the 2019 World Cup final and only really had this week to train together.
Add the disruption of the 11 Covid-positive cases and the reality is, there will be some ring rust.
Captain Siya Kolisi was a doubt up until Monday evening, meaning he would only have trained with the team this week.
Let’s go through the team to see where we actually stand.
The back three of Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe have not played together since the World Cup final.
Willie and Cheslin started in the SA ‘A’ win, while Mapimpi was recovering from Covid-19.
We should get a solid outing from centres Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am.
At halfback, you have a duo that last played together at the World Cup. Experienced enough to handle the pressure, there is no doubt that Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard will have to get a feel for each other once again.
De Klerk teamed up with Morne Steyn in the SA ‘A’ match against the Lions, while Pollard and Cobus Reinach joined forces against Georgia.
Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Kwagga Smith will make up the loosies for the second time after also playing against Georgia.
Personally, I’m very interested to see which one of these players will play to the ball with no specialist fetcher in this lineup. Needless to say, Kwagga will be watched closely.
We all know what we have in the second row of Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth.
It’s the front row selection, however, that took me by surprise. Okay, maybe not entirely because they hinted that this would be the case in the match against Georgia.
But in that match the trio of Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane failed to give South Africa an edge at the scrums. Nyakane was penalised for illegal scrummaging in the second minute to give Georgia the lead.
In fact, two of the first three scrums went against South Africa and it was only when Frans Malherbe replaced Nyakane – off for a concussion test in the first half – that things looked better.
What puzzles me even more is why Mbonambi is then not played off the bench in the middle of his Stormers teammates Steven Kitshoff and Malherbe – surely their familiarity with each other will make them an even more formidable second-half weapon.
That would allow for Malcolm Marx, who is an absolute beast at the breakdown, to contest in this particular aspect of the game.
With Duane Vermeulen, who is tough to move off the ball, not there, Marx could have been vital in this regard.
Admittedly, in my book at least, you would then have compromised in the lineouts – I do consider Mbonambi to be a more consistent lineout thrower. Still, I would have grouped the Stormers and have Marx with Ox and Trevor.
Given all these challenges, the Springboks will do well to slow down the game at first... ease their way into it if you like.
I expect the complete opposite from the Lions. I expect Gatland’s men to hit the Springboks hard from the word go.
It’s then when you can’t concede early scrum penalties, can’t search for your halfback partner because you haven’t played together in a while, fail to read kicks as a back three because you must still get used to each other again, get bumped off the ball while trying to contest the breakdown because you don’t have that sort of loosie in your team.
Yes, I am preparing myself for the worst on Saturday, meaning there’s only way from here and that is up.