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The Lions know what's coming but it's another story stopping the Boks

Warren Gatland’s Wales came close to beating the South Africans at the 2019 World Cup.

Maro Itoje at a Lions gym session yesterday.
Maro Itoje at a Lions gym session yesterday.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A SMILE BROKE out across South Africa out-half Handré Pollard’s face yesterday when he was asked about ex-Springboks boss Peter de Villiers’ comments that their style of play under Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber is “very, very boring.”

“For me, that’s the most beautiful thing in the world… apart from my wife,” was Pollard’s response.

“It’s the way we’re brought up, it’s the way we play and for me personally, that’s a thing of beauty. Throwing the ball around is nice for people watching on TV but for me, that [Springboks style of play] is beautiful.”

One of Erasmus’ masterstrokes in guiding the Boks to their 2019 World Cup success was reintroducing them to what his players believe is their rugby DNA: suffocating, high-pressure, and extremely physical rugby.

They always have sprinklings of attacking class, as we saw with classy tries from Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe in the World Cup final against England, but their formula is centred around dominating their opposition at the set-piece and in contact around the pitch.

South Africa A’s win over the Lions last week was a continuation of the theme – kick pressure that forced errors from Warren Gatland’s side in their own half, a maul focus, relentlessly physical defensive effort and work-rate, direct carrying off nine at times, plus a dash of attacking class from Kolbe on kick transition.

The Springboks are due to name their first Test team today at 12.30pm Irish/UK time and it’s expected to be as close to their World Cup final side as possible after their recent Covid disruption

So while Erasmus and Nienaber may have a few little tricks up their sleeves for the first Test on Saturday, the Lions believe they know what’s coming.

maro-itoje-with-eben-etzebeth The Boks can be hard to stop when they gain momentum. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

There is an admiration within the tourists’ squad at just how effective the Boks can be.

“We’d all take the style of play they play if we could end up with a World Cup winner’s medal at the end of it,” says Lions out-half Dan Biggar. “They’ve done extremely well in their style of play. They’re heavily reliant on set-piece, they’re heavily reliant on getting on the front foot in terms of their forward carriers, in particular off nine.

“You know you’re going to be in a kicking battle when you play South Africa. The amount of kicks on Saturday is going to be pretty high with how they play and what they want you to do. They want you to make errors in your own half to allow them to have territory and allow them to get into their power game.

“What’s perhaps more impressive about South Africa is you kind of know everything they’re about to throw at you, but it’s very difficult if they do it well or you’re a little bit off or lose a couple of collisions to get back on top of them.

“That momentum is huge for them. It’s about staying in the arm wrestle for as long as possible, not giving them anything cheap and then taking your chances when you get them.

“I think everyone who plays against South Africa knows what they’re going to present. It’s just making sure you’re physical and patient enough to stick in there.”

Intriguingly, it was Gatland and Biggar’s Wales who came closest to stopping the Boks’ momentum in the knock-out stages of the World Cup.

The kick-heavy semi-final between the sides won’t be remembered as a free-flowing classic but the Boks needed a 76th-minute penalty from Pollard to win 19-16. 

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faf-de-klerk-celebrates The Boks beat Wales in the 2019 World Cup semi-final. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Biggar reckons that calling that encounter attritional is “a polite way of putting it” but he, Gatland, and the Welsh learned important lessons.

“We didn’t come out on top. Again, when you play this side it’s very small margins it comes down to. It’s losing your patience once in your own half costing you three points or a drive to the corner.

“That could be the difference between being on the right end of a scoreline or the wrong end.

“From our [the Lions'] point of view, it’s about if we have got opportunities to shift the ball or move the ball and play, then we have to, we have to be positive against this team.

“If it’s not on or we’re not in position or set or ready, then we have to make sure we’re solid and don’t give them any ‘ins’ to the game.

“When we reviewed that semi-final, we probably just gave them… not much, we didn’t do a huge amount wrong in the game, but we just gave them one or two ‘ins,’ and they punish you.

“It’s just trying to be as squeaky clean as we can but also have that positive mindset where when we need to shift the ball and be positive, we have to take that.”

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Murray Kinsella

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