It’s hard to believe but a tour, that so many doubted would ever happen in the first place, serves up its first course as South Africa and the British Irish Lions at long last get down to business in Cape Town. It’s time to put aside all the debates as to whether or not the Tour should even have gone ahead in the first place given the current situation in South Africa, both in terms of the pandemic and civil unrest. However, now we’ve finally managed to make it this far, it’s importance to a country that loves its rugby more than any other except New Zealand, simply cannot be underestimated. Consequently the power it has to potentially lift the spirits of a nation in troubled times is well worth the sacrifice. Despite the rather extraordinary environment in which this Tour is being played out, Lions Tours are still something special. They only happen every four years, and for players donning the red jersey it is an honor equivalent to hoisting the World Cup, and for their opponents it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to pit yourself against a collection of some of the world’s best players.
So without any further ado in a match that has plenty of fascinating micro contests within it, we look at five areas that really got us talking.
Two of the game’s most talismanic Captains who pride themselves on defying the odds have plenty to prove
The fact that Lions and Wales Captain and second rower Alun Wyn Jones is actually starting this first Test is a testament to his status as perhaps the greatest Lions Captain the historic Touring side has ever seen. Having dislocated his shoulder seven minutes into the first game against Japan only four weeks ago, the fact that he starts this first Test is nothing short of a miracle. As the most capped Test player in the game’s history, his absence on this his last Lions Tour would have been heartbreaking. His determination to work himself back into match fitness just shows his strength of character and against such a physically challenging side as South Africa, his leadership will be so critical. However, if he can last this match and emerge injury free is a huge ask, so like many we’ll be watching with bated breath.
South African Captain Siya Kolisi, has been through his own trials and tribulations as he tested positive for COVID 19 and has had to isolate from the rest of the squad until only a few days ago. Consequently, like Jones questions will be raised as to his fitness levels. However, just like Jones he is such an immense presence and source of inspiration on the field for his teammates, that it was hard to imagine the Tour going ahead without him.
In short two legends of the modern game, both who have everything to prove and yet have defied all the odds to get here in the first place. A clash of noble Chieftains who their troops will follow without hesitation now awaits.
Two of the game’s most notable agitators/enforcers renew their acquaintance
These two giant second rowers will provide us with some thrilling aerial battles come lineout time and some genuine grunt and grit in the scrums. They will terrorize the scrum halves, making box kicking a bit like playing Russian Roulette, while life in the rucks and the breakdowns will be a genuine misery for anyone who tries to get in their way. Both have a penchant for needling the opposition which at times can get them on the wrong side of the referee’s whistle for long periods of the game. Essential to both sides, South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and the Lions Maro Itoje are renowned for their short fuses, phenomenal work rates and awe inspiring physicality. Their respective roles in Saturday’s proceedings are likely to make the headlines come the Sunday papers. In addition for Itoje, there’s the small matter of an opportunity to settle the score with Etzebeth for England’s defeat at the hands of the Springboks in the last World Cup.
2019’s World Player of the Year meets one in the making
Pieter-Steph du Toit is a firm fan favourite here at the Lineout and has been for quite some time now. Since bursting onto the International scene in 2013 the 29 year old back rower who is equally at home in the second row, has simply matured like a fine South African wine. He’s just got better every year and we were delighted to see one of Test Rugby’s hardest workers get the recognition of World Player of the year in 2019 at the conclusion of South Africa’s successful World Cup campaign in Japan. A man who constantly puts his body on the line for the jersey with little or no regard to his personal safety, du Toit epitomises the passion and pride that comes with donning your national colors. Expect to see the giant utility forward everywhere on the pitch for the full eighty minutes, and looking like he could go another eighty when the final whistle is blown.
Some may argue that Scotland’s Hamish Watson has missed out on a starting berth for this first Test, as he finds himself on the bench but will likely feature as an impact player in the final quarter. However, we can understand Lions Coach Warren Gatland’s reasoning for picking England’s Tom Curry. He, like du Toit, brings an impressive and powerful level of physicality to any match, with a similar disregard for his own safety. In short, he’s almost bulletproof and in the thick of things for the full eighty minutes while never giving an inch. South Africa are renowned for the physical intensity they bring to the Test arena, and as a result Curry is the right choice to weather the initial onslaught.
Jeep vs Hummer
The only thing these two have in common is that they are both South African. Put them next to each other though and it’s an almost comical comparison as the pint sized Springbok winger at 1.7 metres and 74 kgs, comes up against his Scottish and Lions opposite number at 1.93 metres and 105 kgs. You’d think then that the Lion would be slower across the pitch than the Springbok – not so. But then surely the Springbok is a liability when it comes to tackling players twice his size – not so. While they may look like Laurel and Hardy standing next to each other on a rugby pitch it’s still a remarkably even contest. Kolbe consistently tackles way above his weight often bringing down men more than twice his size, while his footwork and turn of pace is simply dazzling leaving many a defender wondering if they even saw him in the first place as he racks up another try for the Springboks. Van der Merwe has been a try scoring machine for Scotland and the Lions who simply swats defenders aside or steps over them as he lights up the afterburners he has clearly had installed in his boots. Although defensively he can occasionally be suspect, if you do run into the Scottish Lion you’re likely to be stopped dead in your tracks. The contest between these two distinctly different physically built players will be one of the highlights of the Test.
Two players who surely must be wondering what they must have done wrong
You’d have to argue it’s probably felt like a bit of tough week for Ireland’s Conor Murray and Wales Josh Adams. After he was handed the Captaincy as a result of Alun Wyn Jones seemingly tour ending injury in the opening warm up game against Japan, it seemed certain that Murray would get the starting berth as scrum half. However, in the warm up games against provincial South African sides it’s Scotland’s Ali Price who has looked the more dynamic number 9. Murray simply hasn’t looked like he has the pace and quick thinking of the young Scottish upstart. His opposite number, the Springboks Faf de Klerk has all those qualities and more so it’s no surprise that Lions Coach Warren Gatland has settled on Ali Price’s exuberant game to match de Klerk’s compared to the more cautious approach favored by Murray. In many ways Price is what Murray was five years ago, so it’s not surprising that he finds himself getting the nod to start.
As for winger Josh Adams, he must surely be scratching his head and wondering what more he needs to do to impress the Lions boss. However, we think we can understand Gatland’s logic. South Africa have some bruising centres running the inside channels who are likely to suck in the Lions wingers. Consequently Gatland has picked a more physical mix out wide in England’s Anthony Watson and Duhan van der Merwe who can perhaps stand their ground a bit better whichever part of the park they get drawn into. Watson has been big, physical and fast as has van der Merwe and these are qualities that will be more important than the ability to score tries in this initial test of nerves and strength on Saturday. We fully expect to see Adams get to start in one of the Tests, but in this first real appraisal of the Springbok machine, we’d argue Gatland has made the right choice in going the more physical route.
There are so many other matchups that are worth talking about, but if we did then this piece would go on far too long. So these are the main things that struck us about what lies ahead on Saturday and what to watch for. We are putting out a podcast going through the respective team sheets so if you want a player by player breakdown head over to the TV Page for that. We simply don’t know how to call this one at this stage, but what we are fairly certain of is that it will go down to the Series being decided in the 3rd and final Test.
Till then take care everyone, and now the wait is finally over let’s enjoy what we hope will be three glorious Saturdays of Test Rugby! To reinforce our point that this Tour in the end was the right thing to do, we’ll let a man whose praises we’ve already sung in this article have the final word.