Are the Springboks ready for the British and Irish Lions?
The first question on most British rugby fans’ minds this year has been: will the Lions tour go ahead? And where?
But a more pressing question, noting the complete lack of game time for South Africa, should be: will the Springboks even be ready?
South Africa have not played a game of international rugby since lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in Tokyo in November 2019.
The global pandemic has brought with it many unintended sporting experiments, and rugby is no different. Curtailed seasons, extra midweek games, thorough testing protocols and no crowds have all been a huge test for the sport.
However, one of the biggest experiments in the last season came not from COVID-19 but from the Saracens’ salary saga. The result of Saracens being relegated along with their large England rugby contingent brought about the question of whether long rest periods between competitive games can create more opportunities and better performances.
Those Saracens players, who formed the backbone of the hugely successful England team over the last year, became unwilling participants in the experiment, testing this hypothesis when England coach Eddie Jones selected five of them to start the Six Nations. Almost all of them played absolutely no club rugby until very recently and played no competitive games between the autumn Nations Cup and the Six Nations.
The unfortunate result of that tournament very much supported the notion of so-called ‘ring rust’. England suffered their worst Six Nations performance since Italy joined the competition in 1999 and the five nations became six.
Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly were heavily criticised for their lack of accuracy and poor decision-making, Jamie George lost his starting spot to Luke Cowan-Dickie and Billy Vunipola, despite continuing to carry like a bulldozer, admitted his own performance wasn’t up to scratch.
The potential outlier, Maro Itoje, who at times performed at his freakishly good levels, still conceded a table-topping 12 penalties – with his Saracens counterpart Mako Vinupula coming in second with nine – which one could argue was due to being out of touch with the current referee’s idea of legal and illegal, a vital ability for a world-class jackler.function edmWidgetSignupEvent() window.roarAnalytics.customEvent( category: 'EDM', action: 'EDM Signup', label: `Shortcode Widget`, );
If we take the findings of this two-month experiment and look at South Africa, at the time of writing the national side has not played a Test in 17 months. That’s almost certainly the longest gap in the international schedule since the game turned professional. Compare that to the home nations who since the Rugby World Cup final have played the 2020 Six Nations tournament, the autumn Nations Cup and the 2021 Six Nations, tallying up 14 games apiece, with Wales playing a whopping 16.
At the club level a good number of the South African World Cup winners are now plying their trade in Europe and afar. However, almost half of the starting squad that last ran out in the green and gold play for the national clubs such as Lions, Stormers, Sharks and Bulls. Since the pandemic hit these sides have played in only two tournaments, the Super Rugby SA and the recent Franchise Cup, totalling a meagre ten games apiece.
Compare that to their northern hemisphere counterparts and the likes of Premiership clubs Exeter, Sale and Bristol, who’ve played over 30 matches. Pro14 clubs like Munster, Leinster, Edinburgh, Blues and Scarlets have played roughly 20 games. The clubs likely to supply players to the British and Irish Lions squad have all played double and in some cases triple the number of games as the South African clubs.
To add further worry for the Springboks, the newly incepted Rainbow League between the South African Super Rugby franchises and the Pro14 unfortunately looks like it may be cancelled, which will again leave a good portion of Springboks players with little valuable game time prior to July.
So will this hypothesis be further tested during this tour? Will the South African players show the same ring rust as the Saracens in the Six Nations with so many players having had much more time away from the highest level of the support? Or will Rassie Erasmus’s men prove why they hold the world No. 1 spot and, with the superstars such as Cheslin Kolbe, Faf de Klerk and Damian de Allende causing a storm in Europe, still provide the competitive series all Lions fans are hoping for?
The Rugby world waits with great anticipation, particularly, I’m sure, Eddie Jones.