2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Australia

With New Zealand having earned their victory over Argentina, it was time for part 2 of the double header as World Champions South Africa faced off against hosts Australia. After the return of Izack Rodda and Samu Kerevi to the Wallabies 23 last week, this time it was the return of Quade Cooper that was grabbing people’s attention, and he god off to a solid start, trading 2 penalties apiece with Handré Pollard. The game was a tight affair, but could have taken a drastic turn on 15 minutes as Siya Kolisi tip tackled Tom Banks and was lucky that the fullback braced his fall with an arm, leading to just a yellow card for the Springbok captain. With the Boks a man down, Australia immediately took advantage of the extra space, and when Kerevi stepped inside Faf de Klerk, he created the space to send Andrew Kellaway over in the corner. The Springboks fought back, but failed to take their chances, with Pollard missing a penalty, then Lukhanyo Am fumbling the ball as he collected a grubber in the Australian in-goal under pressure from Tate McDermott. However a series of strong mauls forced the Wallabies pack to infringe, and as Kolisi returned to the pitch, Matt Philip was sent to the bin, and the change in numbers saw the Boks maul over for Bongi Mbonambi to score. Pollard missed the conversion, though, while Cooper maintained his 100% record with two more penalties to open up an 11-19 lead at the break.

Pollard had a chance to cut the lead early in the second half, only for his attempt to come back off the post, but his next attempt successfully cut the lead to 5. Australia’s next attack showed promise but came to an early end as Willie Le Roux was adjudged to have knocked on deliberately, leading to another penalty from Cooper and a 10-minute spell on the sidelines for the fullback, where he was soon joined by Australia’s Folau Fainga’a following a no-arms tackle to the lower leg. With the Boks again having a man advantage in the pack, they one again drove a 5m lineout over for a try, with replacement hooker Malcolm Marx the beneficiary this time. As the game entered the final quarter, Cooper kicked another penalty, but a second try for Marx from a third 5m lineout gave the Boks a late lead, though replacement fly half Damian Willemse pushed his kick wide to the right. It looked like a valiant effort from the Wallabies would fall just short, but a powerful drive at a later South African scrum saw Kwagga Smith drop on the loose ball and, with the rest of his pack being pushed backwards, Nic White was able to win the holding on penalty and Cooper, playing his first Test since 2017, stepped up to complete his perfect day off the tee and give the Wallabies a 26-28 victory.

He’s back!

With a couple of below-par performances, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see a change to Australia’s playmaking set-up this week. And while it was a shame to see Noah Lolesio drop out of the 23, there was the excitement of seeing what Quade Cooper could do in his first Test appearance since facing Italy 4 years ago. Looking back at the match, it’s safe to say that it worked out well.

I suggested after the last match that being the sole playmaker in the backline and dealing with the goal kicking was too much pressure on Lolesio’s young shoulders. But Cooper has the experience to shoulder this responsibility and finished the game with a 100% (8/8) record off the tee for a total of 23 points, which ended up being the difference as South Africa’s misses off the tee proved costly.

But more than that, Cooper got the back line firing in a way Lolesio hadn’t against the All Blacks. Kerevi’s inclusion last week started to improve things, but with Cooper now pulling the strings the centre was truly unleashed, as Cooper would take the ball on to interest the defence, then play his man through a gap. Similarly, Cooper also did a great job of varying the attack to keep the vaunted South African defence guessing, much like when Finn Russell was introduced in the final Lions Test this summer.

At 33 years old, Cooper clearly isn’t the future of Australian rugby, but he is a talent that the team will truly benefit from having among them as the youngsters gain experience at this level. And with the World Cup just 2 years away, could he bring his career to an end at the showpiece event in France.

Broken down

We’re so used to seeing the Springboks dominate at the breakdown, but in this match, they really seemed to struggle. While I think part of this is down to missing a player with the nous of Pieter-Steph du Toit, I think that they were genuinely shocked by the ferocity with which the Australians attacked the breakdown. And not just the initial battle over the ball, but the continued fighting and nuisance-making from the Wallabies players once the Boks had secured the ball.

Sometimes the Wallabies went a little too far and gave away a penalty, but on the whole they toed the line just right, and that left Faf de Klerk under too much pressure to be able to control the game in the way that we expect him to, putting more pressure on Handré Pollard and the rest of the team. Don’t be shocked to see the Boks trying to better secure the ball at the back of the rucks this week.

Tipping the balance

Watching Australia in recent weeks, their back row has looked so much better once Pete Samu has come off the bench. Michael Hooper remains one of the best—and potentially most underrated—7s in world rugby, while Rob Valentini is successfully growing into his role as the muscle of the trio. However, I feel that Lachlan Swinton is finding it difficult to be an enforcer at 6 following such a quick step up to international level. Similarly, I also feel that, as someone who usually plays flanker, Valentini is a little limited at number 8, as he does not have that same experience especially at the back of the scrum.

Personally, I think that moving Valentini to 6 would allow him to become that big carrier similar to how Akira Ioane is currently being utilised by the All Blacks, then bringing in a more specialised number 8. Bringing in either Samu or Harry Wilson would then provide the Wallabies with another carrying option as both run incredibly smart supporting lines.

At Test level, you need to be getting the most out of all 23 players in the squad. I’m not sure that the starting back row has quite done this in recent weeks, but the change I’ve done above could be the next step on making the Wallabies a constant threat again, while also increasing the likelihood that they are attacking with quick ball on the front foot.

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v South Africa

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v South Africa

After last week’s double header, the Rugby Championship saw just one match take place this weekend. In a normal year, this match would have taken place in Argentina, but the continued impacts of COVID meant that the match was played at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, which hosted last week’s bonus point win for the Springboks.

While the venue may have stayed the same, both teams were heavily changed, and despite a positive opening couple of minutes from the Pumas, their indiscipline soon began to cost them and Handré Pollard duly kicked 3 penalties in the opening quarter. However a Jasper Wiese penalty from the restart gave Argentina a penalty deep in the South African half and Domingo Miotti put his team on the board off the tee. Pollard soon extended the lead back to 9 with another penalty, and just minutes later added another as Rodrigo Bruni was sent to the bin for his team’s persistent offending. Despite being a man down though, it was the Pumas who ended the half with the chance to score as Miotti lined up a penalty from close to halfway, but he was unable to hit the target and the Pumas went into the break down 3-15.

Much like in the first half, it was the Pumas who started better after the break, and they had the chance to open the half’s scoring with a Miotti penalty after Pollard took out Juan Cruz Mallía in the air, only for the young fly half to pull it to the left. However the Boks soon found themselves putting together phases in the Argentina 22, and when Willie le Roux came on a late loop from the blind side, he successfully created an overlap to send Makazole Mapimpi over in the corner. The Springboks were over for another try just minutes later as they secured their own ball at a lineout 5m from the Argentina line and ripped apart the Pumas’ maul defence for Malcolm Marx to go over. With substitutes now coming on, the game began to open up as the Boks looked to secure the bonus point, and the Pumas began to get more possession and space in which to use it, and when the Pumas drove a maul up to the Springbok try line just after the hour it looked like they would finally score, only for a handling error as the maul went to ground. As the clock ticked into the red, the Pumas had another chance to score as replacement back row Juan Martín González was released down the left wing, but his pass back inside was slightly behind Santiago Carreras, who was unable to collect cleanly and the loose ball fell into the hands of Lukhanyo Am, who cleaned things up, and lock Tomás Lavanini added yet another yellow card to his Test record or a late shot on Pollard. With the clock in the red, the Boks could have kicked the ball out to end the match but chose to go in search of the bonus point one last time, only for Pollard to miss touch, allowing the Pumas to work the way back down the field, and when they found themselves on the try line, Pablo Matera came crashing in on an inside line, and when he found contact on the line, he successfully managed to spin his body round to get to ground and score his team’s first try of this year’s tournament, with Nicolás Sánchez kicking the conversion to end the game as a 10-29 victory for the World Champions.

Paying the penalty

With the amount of penalties the Pumas were giving away, there was no chance for them to even get in the game for much of the match, let alone compete for the win! while the odd penalty is acceptable, the Pumas were playing on the edge far too frequently and were duly punished, with Handré Pollard’s kicks alone enough to win the match. But the real issue was their discipline at the lineout, where they tried every possible tactic—both legal and illegal—to disrupt the maul, with the outcome either being the maul trundling on or a penalty to the Boks. And of course the World Champions took every advantage of this, regularly kicking their penalties to touch and working their way down the field in a matter of phases as the Pumas illegally halted their mauls.

If you are struggling to defend the lineout and driving maul, then you need to limit the number of times the opposition get to utilise that set piece, and that means remaining disciplined.

Mishandled

Despite all-but playing themselves out of the game, the crazy thing is that the Pumas still had the chance to somehow come away with an undeserving victory. Argentina made a number of chances, only to shoot themselves in the foot at the wrong moment.

In an alternate universe, Gloucester wing Santiago Carreras could have come away with a brace of tries today, with the first one coming in the opening half as he ran a clinical line off the drifting Santiago Chocobares, only for the centre to delay his pass too long and throw it forward. Then with the clock in the red at the end of the game, it looked like he was certain to score as Juan Martín González played the ball inside to him just short of the line, but the pass was a little behind him and he was unable to take it cleanly, leading to it being knocked on. If the first chance was a possible try, then this was a guaranteed try.

Similarly, the Pumas would surely have scored just after the hour had they been more patient when their maul went to ground just short of the line, but rather than the first man in securing the ball, they tried to take it themselves and fumbled the ball forward, wasting what to that point had been the best chance of the game.

And sadly for the Pumas, there was yet another wasted chance in the latter stages of the second half. As the game opened up, Argentina brought their attack to the left and Chocobares fed Lucio Cinti, who looked like he may have the pace to beat the covering defence to the corner flag, only for play to be called back as Chocobares’ pass again drifted forward.

To me, these errors came largely as a result of 2 things. First of all, their lack of control in the game meant that they were almost panicking and trying to score as quickly as possible. But probably more costly was the constant chopping and changing of the team, which limits the chance for players to learn their exact timings to play off each other.

Despite the indiscipline, this was a much better performance from the Pumas than last week, expect to see further improvement as the tournament goes on.

Stunted

In theory, the Springbok backline had a good balance to it, with 2 highly physical centres in Am and Damian de Allende, 2 elite wings and 2 playmakers in Handré Pollard and Willie le Roux. Yet despite this, there was only one time that the Boks really had success going wide: when le Roux’s late loop set up Mapimpi’s try. Other than this, the South African attack looked very poor, generally just going sideways without committing defenders, and allowing the Pumas’ defence to drift with them and cut down the space outside.

First things first, congratulations to the Boks for actually trying to play rugby a couple of times, but the attempts were poor. De Allende and a forward or 2 running dummy lines would immediately force the Pumas defence to hold their positions and create the space for the wings to exploit. Hopefully like with the Pumas, we will see the Springboks continue to try and play more expansive attacking rugby with more success as the tournament goes on.

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2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Argentina

Last weekend, South Africa were defeating the British & Irish Lions to win the series 2-1. This weekend they found themselves opening their Rugby Championship campaign at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium against Argentina. After the physicality of the last few weeks, it was no real shock to see a heavily changed 23 from the Springboks, but they were on the board in a matter of minutes via the boot of Elton Jantjies after lock Marcos Kremer was pinged for not rolling away. Between bouts of kick tennis, the Pumas were looking to attack, but an attempt to spread the ball on 12 minutes saw the ball go to floor as Sebastián Cancelliere tried to find Bautista Delguy on the loop, and when Cobus Reinach recovered the loose ball, he was able to just hold off the chase of a despairing Rodrigo Bruni to score the opening try. Argentina were soon on the board with a penalty from Nicolás Sánchez, but the fly half was beaten in the air by Eben Etzebeth just minutes later, and Jantjies’ cross kick was just collected on the touchline following a juggle from Aphelele Fassi for his second try in 2 games. South Africa were taking control and winning the penalties, but rather than pressing the boot on the Pumas’ neck, they chose to try building a score with the boot, with 6 points for Jantjies and a miss from Frans Steyn, but this allowed the Pumas to stay in contention as Sánchez kicked 2 penalties in the final 5 minutes of the half for a halftime score of 21-9.

Anyone hoping that the Boks would open things up in the second half were sorely disappointed as it was more of the same, so much so that I lost count of the number of times I yawned. Sánchez missed a drop goal on the first attack of the half, but settled for 2 more penalties, which were cancelled out by Jantjies while Steyn missed again. With the game entering the final 10 minutes, it looked like The Boks had earned their bonus point as Fassi went over for another try, but it was ruled out for an offence by Malcolm Marx in the build-up. However with just 2 minutes remaining they found the all-important breakthrough as a strong run from Marco van Staden put them on the front foot and acting 9 Morné Steyn fed replacement scrum half Jaden Hendrikse to score in the corner on his debut. With the clock in the red, Argentina launched one last attack and when they made it up to the Springbok line it looked like they may make the Boks pay for doing the bare minimum to get a bonus point by taking it away at the death, but Matías Alemanno lost possession as he forced his was over the line and the game ended in a 32-12 bonus point victory for the World Champions.

A show of depth

After such a hard Test series against the Lions, it was no shock to see the Springboks fielding a very different squad this weekend, with the majority of the 23 not involved or only playing a limited role in the previous Tests. And yet to put in such a dominant performance was a strong reminder of the strength in depth that the Boks have.

They have the personnel to put out 2 completely different back lines that could both excel at international level (Damian Willemse did not have a good time at 15 here but is a truly talented player) and that would still leave players like Curwin Bosch, Herschel Jantjies, André Esterhuizen, Rohan Janse van Resburg and Morné Steyn left over. Meanwhile in the pack, they have at least 3 solid options at each position in the front row, while their world class ideal back row of Kolisi, Vermeuelen and du Toit is backed up by such quality that even Dan du Preez—who has been a star for the Sharks and then Sale—could only make the bench for this game. If they are weak anywhere, it is perhaps at lock, where they have 4 stars in Etzebeth, de Jager, Mostert and Snyman, but could find themselves short of experience if a couple of them were unavailable at the same time.

Yesterday, I wrote about how much the All Blacks team is chopped and changed under Ian Foster. Well the Springboks squad is largely settled, allowing them to improve as a unit, but they are still taking their chance to test the wider squad and those on the fringes, to ensure that they have every chance of putting together a run of wins.

Be Prepared

What really became clear to me during this match was that we had 2 teams at different stages of preparation. While many of the Springboks 23 didn’t feature against the Lions, they were training and preparing alongside those that did, and then went straight onto this. As a result, they were not just match-fit, but fully match-ready, having just seen off the best of Great Britain and Ireland.

By contrast, Argentina played Tests against Romania and 2 massively understrength Wales teams, before then having the majority of a month off. That meant that not only had the team not reached the same level of competition in their preparation from the tour, but they also then had a drop off in intensity between the July Tests and this competition.

As such, the Pumas came in undercooked, and this was accentuated even more by the high level of a South Africa team that was at peak intensity, so much so that even star back rowers Rodrigo Bruni, Pablo Matera and Facundo Isa could barely make an impact on the game, while the handling error that led to Reinach’s opening try was a timing error caused by the team not being up to speed and then accentuated by blood replacement Cancelliere having just entered the fray mere seconds before for his first Test cap since 2019.

Expect to see the Pumas grow into the tournament over the coming weeks. As for the Springboks, it’s probably more a question of whether they want to start playing attacking rugby or just putting everyone to sleep.

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Lions Tour 2021: Team of the Series

Lions Tour 2021: Team of the Series

We are now a couple of days removed from the decisive third Test, which saw Morné Steyn’s late penalty hand the World Champions a 2-1 series win. So before we turn our attention from the Lions Tour and onto the Rugby Championship, all that remains is to pick the Team of the Series.

For this, I will purely be selecting based on the 3 Test matches, so players like Josh Adams and Tadhg Beirne who had solid tours but barely featured in the Tests will not make the squad. Now of course, the biggest issue with limiting myself to just the 3 Tests is that they were three of the worst matches that I have ever witnessed, so I hate to admit it but many of these selections came down to “who was the least worst?” rather than “who was the best?”

Let me know who would make your XV.

1) Trevor Nyakane: Had Wyn Jones been fit for the full 3 Tests then I think there could have been some more competition here, but injury limiting him to just over 40 minutes of rugby and the lack of consistency from Mako Vunipola or Rory Sutherland made this an easy win for the South African. Steven Kitshoff may have got the start for 2 of the Tests, but it was Nyakane who really shone, putting some poor performances behind him to justify his spot in the 23, winning a number of key penalties in the scrum.

2) Luke Cowan-Dickie: Bongi Mbonambi was far from his best, Malcom Marx didn’t get enough minutes and Ken Owens’ lineout issues were exploited, so Cowan-Dickie gets the nod here. Despite not quite reaching the level of the warm-up matches, he was the most reliable of the hookers, while his strong carrying and low body position caused an issue for tacklers.

3) Tadhg Furlong: Furlong did not always have things his own way but was largely reliable both in the scrum and around the park. Vunipola and Jones’ success against Frans Malherbe in the first and third Tests respectively did the Irishman a favour here.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Eben Etzebeth: Finally a position where it was hard to choose due to the high quality of performances. I am often critical of Maro Itoje as he too often toes the line of legality, but when he holds back just that tiny fraction and stays legal, he is a world class player and showed it throughout the series, with his performance in the first match arguably the performance of the series. Meanwhile Etzebeth did a great job of breaking up the Lions’ lineout at key moments, while also carrying hard in midfield to break the gain line.

6) Siya Kolisi: So as this series went ahead in South Africa, I am looking at the flankers from a South African point of view, meaning that 6 is the openside position. Tom Curry certainly had his moments, but what really stood out in his play were the penalties he conceded, while Kolisi combined solid play around the park with the burden of captaining the World Champions to a series victory.

7) Pieter-Steph du Toit: Courtney Lawes put in some solid performances, but nothing that stood out from what is expected of any player. The same can be said from Franco Mostert. Du Toit may not have even featured in half of the series, going off injured midway through the first half of the second Test, but while he was on the park he stood out, especially with his cleaning up of some erratic passing by Handré Pollard in the first Test.

8) Jack Conan: Boy did this series miss Duane Vermeulen. Kwagga Smith’s skillset did not suit the usual Springbok approach, while Jasper Wiese was a penalty machine. Jack Conan was quieter than ideal and butchered a fantastic opportunity to score in the second Test by carrying on what appeared to be a set move off a scrum rather than playing what was in front of him, but was by far the most impressive of the number 8s with a number of dynamic carries.

9) Faf de Klerk: Ali Price came close, but a couple of key interventions earned the Sale halfback the pick here. A fantastic game manager whose style of play is perfect for the current South African approach. Mad a try-saving ball-and-all tackle on Conor Murray off a Lions scrum 5m from the Springbok line, while put in a clever grubber for Lukhanyo Am’s try in the second Test.

10) Finn Russell: Maybe a controversial pick here as he only played 70 minutes, but Pollard was erratic at times with his passing and goal kicking, while the Lions’ tactics limited Biggar far too much. Russell came in and barely puta foot wrong, varying the game up much more and causing real problems for the South African defence. If only we’ seen more of this.

11) Makazole Mapimpi: Is Mapimpi one of he most underrated wings in international rugby? The wing is forced to play a largely defensive role and does it well, but when given the chance to score he was clinical, with a and an assist in the second Test. Imagine how dangerous he would be in a team that created more chances for him.

12) Robbie Henshaw: Damian de Allende was a solid reliable option at 12 and at many positions that would have been enough to earn selection, but unfortunately he finds himself up against Robbie Henshaw. Despite playing with a different centre partner in each Test (and shifted to 13 for the decider) Henshaw was reliable in both defence and attack, while his 2 breaks of note through the series were more than any other Lion managed.

13) Lukhanyo Am: Granted he wasn’t tested overmuch, but this series was anther great opportunity for Am to show his proficiency as one of the best defensive 13s in world rugby. Did a great job of shutting down a number of the Lions’ attacks and scored a crucial try as momentum shifted in their favour during the second Test.

14) Cheslin Kolbe: Arguably should have received a red and a yellow (if not 2 reds) in the second Test, but was allowed to play and earns his spot here. While quiet, his try was a timely reminder of his quality as he fended off Luke Cowan-Dickie and stepped Liam Williams. That Mapimpi and Kolbe basically earned selection by finishing off tries shows just how poor things were out wide.

15) Willie le Roux: The World Cup winner was relatively solid but far from spectacular, but even that was enough to beat out Stuart Hogg. It says it all that Liam Williams was in with a shot despite only playing in the decider, but his selfishness with a 2v1 was criminal. At least le Roux showed us how it should be done when given a chance later in the match, setting up Cheslin Kolbe for his try.

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 3rd Test

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 3rd Test

12 years of waiting all came down to this. With the 2021 Test series between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions level at 1-1, both teams knew that Saturday’s result would decide the series. Both teams came in with changes made, though it was a forced change for the World Champions, with both Faf de Klerk and Pieter-Steph du Toit out injured, while Duane Vermeulen was also still missing despite returning to the squad this week.

That experience missing from the Springbok back row was soon felt as Jasper Wiese was penalised for being offside following a knock-on just minutes into the game, but Dan Biggar missed off the tee. The Lions looked to be trying to play more rugby than in the previous Tests, but were struggling to find a way to break through the green wall in the early minutes, however when the hosts chose to play the ball through the hands they immediately put the tourists under pressure, and though the tourists just about kept up their defence through the phases, it came at the cost of 3 points through the boot of Handré Pollard and also saw Dan Biggar helped off the pitch, with Finn Russell coming on for his first Lions Test cap. It had been 5 weeks since the Scottish fly half played a game of rugby, but he immediately looked at home and the Lions looked better for having him there, causing the South African defence issues, while he was also on target with his opening kick off the tee to level the scores after Steven Kitshoff was penalised for collapsing the scrum. The Lions pack clearly felt they were gaining dominance over the hosts, and when they next had a penalty in the South African half, Russell turned down the 3 points and gave his pack a lineout just 5m from the line. A quick front ball to Maro Itoje allowed the tourists to set the maul, and after some patient grinding, they eventually got the push on to let Ken Owens drop over the line for the opening try. The Boks looked like they were struggling to match their opponents, but were let off just before the half hour as Liam Williams was released down the right wing. With just 1 defender ahead of him and nobody in a realistic position to get across and cover in behind, the Welsh fullback failed to pass to Josh Adams and instead took contact to end one for the best chances of scoring we saw in the whole tour. If there was any worry that this could be a costly mistake, things got even worse just before the break as Wyn Jones—who had been causing no end of issues at the scrum for Frans Malherbe—spent a few minutes receiving treatment before going straight to a scrum, where Malherbe took advantage of his discomfort to win a penalty that Pollard duly kicked to cut the lead at the break to 6-10.

Just minutes into the second half, Jones again found himself penalised in the scrum and was replaced, clearly not feeling comfortable after his injury. South Africa put themselves into the Lions half and repeatedly battered away at their defence, but they struggled to find a way through and Pollard missed 2 kickable penalties. As the clock ticked towards the hour, the breakthrough came for South Africa. Everybody failed to collect Ali Price’s high ball, but it was eventually cleaned up by Lukhanyo Am, who quickly played the ball off to Willie le Roux, who had come on the loop to attack the blind 15m channel that had been left empty by Duhan van der Merwe contesting the high ball. Le Roux broke down the wing with support on either side and duly drew the last man to release Cheslin Kolbe, who evaded the desperate tackles of Luke Cowan-Dickie and Liam Williams to score and put the Boks ahead, Pollard adding the extras. The Lions were soon level through the boot of Finn Russell after he was hit late by Wiese. With Pollard misfiring off the tee and the game still close with 15 minutes left, Jacques Nienaber made a big call, taking off the fly half and bringing on 37-year-old Morné Steyn for his first Test cap in 5 years. With only his second touch of the ball, Steyn had put the Boks back ahead, striking over a penalty after the Lions collapsed a driving maul. And then with 10 minutes left, came the crucial moment. After a Lions lineout 5m from the South African try line was immediately sacked, the tourists went through a series of pick and go carries before Mao Vunipola drove over the line, however the replacement prop was unable to get the ball down, and Trevor Nyakane won a penalty at the resultant scrum to allow the hosts to clear their lines. The Lions soon found an equaliser through Russell’s boot, after a break from Robbie Henshaw ended in Am coming in from the side to play Conor Murray. With just minutes left and the scores still level, discipline was key, and it was the hosts who profited as the Lions gave away a kickable penalty with just 2 minutes remaining. 12 years ago, Morné Steyn’s long-range penalty at the death won the second Test to secure the series, and once again the fly half’s aim proved true as he bisected the posts to give the Boks a late lead. There was still time for the restart though, and when the Lions were awarded a scrum in a good attacking position with just seconds left on the clock, there was a glimmer of hope. However, the Springbok pack put the pressure on and won the penalty, which Steyn duly kicked out to end the game in a 19-16 victory and secure the series 2-1.

Wasteful

When you look back on this match with honesty, you realise that while the scrum fell apart in the second half and the lineout wasn’t a guaranteed thing, the Lions should have still won this game, but threw it away.

On 4 separate occasions, the Lions turned down the option of 3 points and instead kicked for the corner. Of these 4 occasions, only 1 saw them come away with any points: Ken Owens’ try. Just 7 points from 4 visits to the 22 already doesn’t look good, but realising that each time they had possession deep in the 22 makes it even worse. To make things even worse, one of these 3 occasions, the Lions were in a strong position, with the maul once again moving towards the line only for Tom Curry to stupidly detach from the maul and then come back in on Siya Kolisi from the side in an attempt to stop him pulling off into a defensive position as the maul wheeled around. Another saw Eben Etzebeth steal the ball just ahead of Alun Wyn Jones, while the final one saw the maul sacked and then Mako Vunipola having far too high a body position as he drove over the line, allowing the defence to get below him and hold him up, while at this point the Springbok scrum was gaining dominance.

But without a doubt the biggest wasted chance came from the selfishness of Liam Williams. The Welsh fullback was released down the right wing under penalty advantage with Josh Adams outside him, with just one defender between them and the line, and nobody in a realistic position to get across and cover. It was the most basic 2v1 drill you could imagine, all Williams had to do was draw his man and pass the ball to Adams to give the wing the simplest of run-ins and extend the lead at a time when the Lions were causing the Boks real problems. And yet for some reason, Williams chose to hold onto the ball and try beating the man, unsurprisingly being tackled and ending the chance.

I have seen some people argue that Williams shouldn’t be criticised for backing himself, but that was the most basic of plays, any professional rugby player—let alone an experienced international back like him—should be making the right call and feeding his support man. This was probably the best chance created in the entirety of the Test series, and Williams blew it. But while this was the worst example, it was juts yet another chance missed by a Lions team that had shown very little inkling to play attacking rugby before this Test. When you play so negatively, it takes time to change your mindset when the gameplan becomes more positive. Maybe if Warren Gatland had tried to play rugby in the previous Tests, the Lions would have been more prepared to finish the chances they were creating.

Risky business

It wasn’t just the Lions’ inability to finish their chances that caught my eye in this game, as there was also another tactical decision they made that could have proved costly, and that was not having blockers in place to the side of the rucks when the scrum halves were kicking.

Now personally, I hate seeing caterpillar rucks and these blockers to the side of the breakdown, as it makes it impossible for a defender to legally do anything to put pressure on the scrum half; but while they are legal it seems stupid to not use them when box kicking regularly.

By having those blockers to the side of the ruck, it just gives the 9 that extra bit of space and time to get the kick away. We even saw in this Test one moment where Ali Price—who does have somewhat of a history of having kicks charged down at Test level—saw his attempted box kick charged down. Especially in this match against the Springboks, with behemoths like Etzebeth, de Jager and Mostert looking to disrupt, having that man in place would have given a bit of extra safety for the 9s.

Luckily for the Lions, they escaped relatively unscathed in this regard, otherwise things could have been even worse for them.

Another gear?

This may seem an odd question to ask after winning the World Cup and Lions Series, but are South Africa holding themselves back?

In Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe, they have 2 of the best wings in the world, and yet the pair barely got any chance to attack during this tour. As with the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the Springbok’s success came off their pack gaining dominance in the set piece, solid defence and the tactical kicking of the halfbacks putting them in opposition territory, where they can take advantage of the penalties they are winning to build up a lead off the tee.

But as a result of this, what we have seen is that they need to keep the tempo very stop-start to allow the forwards a chance to recover. When the Lions were able to up the tempo, such as in this game when Finn Russell started varying the attack, the Springboks looked in danger. Is it time for the World Champions to change their style?

They certainly have the quality of player. Willie le Roux works as an extra playmaker from 15, and while Handré Pollard is not always the most reliable in a more expansive game, he still has a range of passes and kicks. In the midfield, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am provide a great physical pairing, but do they have enough between them to play a more expansive game? Or would the team benefit from bringing Damian Willemse in at 12 to provide another playmaking option. Simply put, the wings need to get the ball in space more often, and some simple changes to the game plan to utilise more of the ball in hand would allow that.

Not only that, but would it benefit the pack? Malcolm Marx plays like an extra flanker, as does Kitshoff. Franco Mostert has an incredible engine, hence his ability to play 7 for the Boks. Spreading the ball more would also force a defence to spread wider, making the carries of Eben Etzebeth or Duane Vermeuelen (once back) even more effective. But what it would also do is improve the effectiveness of the Kwagga Smith. Much of the build-up to the first Test saw questions over whether Smith could cope at 8 as he is not as physically imposing as Vermeuelen. Well playing a more open game would play into the former 7s superstar’s hands as his dynamism would become more important.

Realistically though, we probably won’t see much of a change while the Boks remain so successful. But with the Rugby Championship about to start, the Boks could be in for a shock if their opponents refuse to play into their hands by playing the tight game the Lions did.

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Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 2nd Test

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 2nd Test

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a week since the Lions emerged victorious in the 1ˢᵗ Test against the Springboks, what with all the talk about last weeks officiating and the mystery of Jaco Johan’s true identity, but here we are 7 days later with the Lions and Springboks facing off in the second of three Tests.

And after a week where things arguably got out of control and went too far, it’s no surprise that we saw a cagey start to the game, with the first of a number of tussles coming just minutes into the game. The hosts took an early lead through the boot of Handré Pollard but Dan Biggar soon kicked 2 penalties to put the tourists ahead, with Pollard missing jus before the end of the 1ˢᵗ quarter. Any hopes that the officials would have an easy night soon went out the window, and when Duhan van der Merwe tripped Cheslin Kolbe early in the 2ⁿᵈ quarter. Any hopes the Springboks had of exploiting the extra man disappeared within a minute though, as Cheslin Kolbe’s reckless kick chase saw him take out Conor Murray in the air, with the winger probably lucky to only get a yellow. Despite the extra space on the pitch, neither could find a breakthrough, though Pollard kicked another conversion to bring things level. As the half began drawing towards an eventual (the 40 minutes of game time took over an hour to play out) end, the Lions thought they had scored the opening try as Robbie Henshaw collected Conor Murray’s clever chip on the try line, however the combined efforts of Siya Kolisi, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am held him up in goal just long enough for the host’s captain to strip the ball free, and the Lions were forced to settle for a penalty, which sent them into the break with a 6-9 lead.

The second half last week saw an immediate shift into a higher gear from the Lions, but this time it was the South Africans who came flying out the blocks, and after the Lions failed to claim a high ball in their 22, the South Africans pulled the defence around, before Pollard put in a clever chip to the corner, which Makazole Mapimpi collected to go over for the opening try. The Boks were clearly not going to roll over and hand the Lions the series, and after Dan Biggar saw a penalty attempt come back off the post, some clever substitutions saw them begin to take control. That control paid off just after the hour as a dominant maul drove covered far too much distance before being brought down illegally, and with a penalty advantage given, Faf de Klerk put in a clever grubber from the back of the breakdown, which Lukhanyo Am managed to touch down. With Pollard adding the conversion to take the score beyond a converted try with just 10 minutes left, it looked like the game was done, but the South Africans made sure of it with some dominant play from their pack winning them 3 penalties that Pollard duly kicked for a 27-9 victory that levelled the series 1-1.

Unprepared

The Springboks were poor last week. Considering how little time they have spent together since the World Cup and how badly their preparation for the series had been affected by COVID, anyone with a brain could have expected that they would get better as the series went on. Yet despite that, the Lions chose to stick to a gameplan that saw them try to win the game at the set piece and rely on keeping the ball tight and beating the Boks in the air.

Well that failed miserably, especially as the second half went on, with Ken Owens seemingly thinking that his team were wearing green at the lineouts and Kyle Sinckler getting taught a lesson in scrummaging by Trevor Nyakane, who looked miles better than in recent outings. Meanwhile, though they may have had the height advantage, it looked like the Lions back 3 had all-but forgotten how to play under the high ball. The Lions tried to beat the Boks at their own game… and were handily beaten.

“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact… same f*cking thing… over and over again expecting… shit to change… That. Is. Crazy.”

—Vaas, Far Cry 3

Warren Gatland has never been a coach that I have fully got behind. While I have appreciated how physically fit his teams are, he so often appears to just have 1 plan: going hard in midfield and relying on the quality of his players under the high ball and in the set piece to dominate the game, eventually creating the space out wide for his wings to exploit. However, when that doesn’t work, he so rarely seems to have a Plan B, and that showed horribly in this match.

If the Lions want to come away with the win next week, they need to take a different approach. As great as Chris Harris was today, I think that Robbie Henshaw needs to be moved out to 13 next week, with Owen Farrell coming in at 12 to provide a second playmaking option to play a more open game and move the South African defence around the pitch, with Tadhg Beirne also coming in at 6 in place of Courtney Lawes to provide a more threatening attacking option along with another breakdown threat for the Boks to deal with. Ali Price should be reinstated to the starting line-up as he will provide more variety to the game than Conor Murray, while Liam Williams and Josh Adams should be brought into the back 3.

If they stick to more for the same next week, it could be a long 80 minutes for Lions fans.

Stroke of genius

Sometimes when you look back at a match, it is possible to pick out a handful of moments that proved crucial to the result. One of those today came in the 55ᵗʰ minute, as Jasper Wiese was replaced by Lood de Jager. The Leicester Tigers back row was preferred at number 8 over Kwagga Smith in the continued absence of Duane Vermeulen as he was considered a more physical option, but struggled to make a positive impact on the game, struggling under a couple of high balls and giving away a couple of penalties.

However as if missing Vermeulen wasn’t bad enough for the Boks, they then lost superstar flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit after 20 minutes, as he had been struggling with an injury for about 15 minutes following an awkward landing after a tackle from Duhan van der Merwe. With du Toit going off and Kwagga Smith coming on, the Springboks found the lineout a real struggle, as they were down to just 2 jumpers in Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth, while Courtney Lawes at 6 provided the Lions with a 3ʳᵈ jumper to utilise alongside Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones.

And then came the big call, with Wiese going off and de Jager coming on at lock, moving Mostert to blind side flanker. Now Mostert may not be an obvious option at 7 for the Boks, but has experience of playing on the blindside and the tireless engine to do a job there, but while it may have taken away a bit of mobility in the loose, it considerably added to the set piece. Replacing Wiese with de Jager not only added extra ballast in the scrum, but it also gave the Boks their third lineout jumper again. With de Jager on, the Boks took control of the set piece, and there was no way back for the struggling Lions.

Man in the middle

This was a very odd week of build-up for the match. While the talk before the first Test was about the late call-up of South African Mariusz Jonker as TMO, this week saw things go to a completely new level, with Rassie Erasmus highly critical of Nic Berry’s performance last week, culminating in a 60 minute video highlighting a number of perceived mistakes from Berry that went against the Boks.

With so much pressure it was clear that everybody would be scrutinising this week’s referee Ben O’Keeffe’s performance even more than usual. Refereeing is a thankless task at the best of times but the New Zealander took on the task and did himself proud. While he did seem cautious to make a big call without consulting TMO Jonker and his fellow officials, and while there were some calls that could certainly be argued (most notably Am’s try and Kolbe only receiving a yellow card), O’Keeffe was very clear in talking through the incidents and how he and his team were coming to their decisions.

Will people say that he and his crew were influenced by Rassie Erasmus during the week? Of course. Is it true? Potentially? But should we see a repeat of this week’s criticism, only this time from the Lions? I sincerely hope not. But with next weekend’s Test now becoming the decider, expect to hear come comments from both camps as they try to get the advantage.

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Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 1st Test

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 1st Test

The day Lions fans had been looking forward to since the Lions ended a tied series with New Zealand finally arrived: the day of the First Test between South Africa and the Lions. Unfortunately, the COVID-19pandemic robbed Cape Town Stadium of fans and reduced the quality of warm-up, but the First Test got off to a huge start, with the Lions immediately putting their hosts under pressure, only for Tom Curry to allow them to relieve pressure by advancing in an offside position as they tested Cheslin Kolbe with a high bomb into the 22. After this, the game turned into a close arm wrestle for control, with the Springboks taking the lead through 2 Handré Pollard, while Dan Biggar added one in reply. However, the tourists’ ill discipline continued and allowed the Springboks a lineout in their 22, from which they demolished the Lions pack and released a break to the line, only for Maro Itoje to win a crucial turnover penalty. The Boks may have been denied a try, but soon extended their lead with 2 penalties, but the Lions started building into the game and winning some penalties of their own, though both Biggar and Elliot Daly missed from range. With the clock ticking down on the half, Robbie Henshaw made the first real break of note in the game, but Willie le Roux recovered well to dislodge the ball as Henshaw was looking for a pass, and the teams went in at the break with the score at 12-3.

Things were immediately different after the break, with the Lions looking much more focused and earning 2 quick penalties to set themselves up with a lineout 5 metres from the hosts’ line. Luke Cowan-Dickie found his jumper, and as the maul came together and span around, the English hooker was given the easiest of rides over the line for the opening try. With their lead cut to 2 points, the Springboks thought they had found an immediate answer as Damian de Allende released Lukhanyo Am down the left wing. As cover came across, the centre kicked downfield and Willie le Roux won the race to dot the ball down, only to be adjudged offside by TMO Marius Jonker. Just minutes later and the Boks were breaking down the same wing again, with Pieter-Steph du Toit cleaning up a wild pass from Pollard and releasing Makazole Mapimpi. As the wing came under pressure, he chipped back infield, and when du Toit failed to collect the ball (with Jonker deeming there was no knock on) he collected his own kick and, with Stuart Hogg holding him up on the line, offloaded to Faf de Klerk to put the home team back ahead. The Springboks had only played 1 Test match since winning the World Cup (unless you count the strong South Africa “A” team that recently faced the Lions), and that lack of Test match fitness appeared to show as the second half went on, leading to the team conceding penalty after penalty. Dan Biggar kicked 3 penalties to take back the lead, before a tip tackle from replacement Hamish Watson allowed Pollard to pull the Springboks back within 2 points. South Africa thought that they had scored again with 10 minutes remaining as a poor pass from Kyle Sinckler was shovelled on under pressure, with the ball eventually being dotted down by de Allende, but they were again denied by the TMO, who confirmed that there had been a knock on just prior by Cheslin Kolbe. As the clock ticked down Owen Farrell extended the lead to 17-22 with a penalty, and after the hosts claimed the restart, Maro Itoje released the building pressure with a timely strip just after the clock entered the red, and Stuart Hogg put the ball into touch to secure a 1-0 advantage for the tourists in the series.

Tipping point

One moment that is sure to get some scrutiny over the week (and probably some words from Rassie Erasmus) came in the 64ᵗʰ minute as the Springboks were awarded a penalty for a tackle by Hamish Watson. Willie le Roux had gone up for a high ball, and while the Scottish back row successfully timed his tackle to ensure the fullback was on the floor, he then lifted his legs and took him beyond the horizontal position, with le Roux hitting the ground shoulder-first and going off injured.

This is a tackle that we have seen for years, and the way it has been refereed is that coming down beyond the horizontal is a penalty, with a landing on the shoulder a yellow card and on the head a red, so by all intents and purpses this should have been a yellow card. However referee Nic Berry called it just a penalty in live play and TMO Marius Jonker chose not to intervene during the gap in play as le Roux received treatment.

Now I do have a little sympathy for Jonker. As a South African, he should have been nowhere near this Test, but was called up as a late replacement for Brendon Pickerill. Though I’m sure Jonker would treat this like any other Tests, he must have been aware that every call or non-call would be picked up by either South African or Lions fans as him favouring his nation or overcompensating to avoid calls of bias, and there had already been a couple of controversial calls that had not been helped by poor camera angles, so I can only think that he decided Berry’s initial confidence at the time was enough to stay silent. r perhaps he realised that the Boks were lucky to not have lost a an to the bin for the sheer number of penalties they had given away up to that point in the half, so thought to even things out.

Whatever the reason, the Boks should have had a man advantage going for 10 of the remaining 15 minutes, which could have changed the game, as neither Mapimpi nor Cheslin Kolbe were really given any space by the Lions the few times that South Africa tried to do anything with the ball.

I can’t imagine that there will be any further ramifications for Watson, as the tackle did not look worthy of a red, but the Boks will now have to hope that Willie le Roux can recover sufficiently for the next Test.

Mauled

The Springboks are well known for their aptitude at the lineout—both offensively and defensively—and the maul. So to see the success that the Lions had here was a shock to say the least.

But it came from clever recognition from the tourists. With the Lions looking to get the ball on the move quickly, the Boks countered by having lineout jumpers Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth set up to cover the back and middle of the lineout. In doing so, it left Ali Price having to throw a longer pass to get the ball out to the backs, but what it did do was surrender the front of the lineout to the tourists.

And the Lions took full advantage of this, throwing the safe front balls, setting up the mauls and quickly putting as much pressure through that one side before the Boks could get significant numbers around the side, which resulted in the Lions spinning the maul around to put the majority of the home pack out of the game, which led to Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try and a few other strong surges at the maul, while a number of others were stopped illegally by the Boks.

Expect a different defensive strategy from the Boks next week, as they won’t be able to afford to keep giving the Lions such an easy platform to build off.

Changes for number 2

While the Lions may have won the game, there was certainly room for improvement, so don’t be shocked to see Warren Gatland make some changes for the second Test.

In the front row, I expect to see Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tadhg Furlong to keep their starting spots after strong performances, but with Wyn Jones coming back in after being ruled out of this game with an injury. Maro Itoje was arguably the best player on the pitch for the Lions and when he keeps his discipline is one of the best locks in the world, so he will keep his spot alongside talismanic leader Alun Wyn Jones. In the back row, Tom Curry got on the wrong side of Nic Berry but I expect him to keep his spot alongside Jack Conan and Courtney Lawes, who did what was asked of him despite the feeling that Tadhg Beirne could have done that and more.

In the halfbacks, I expect the partnership of Ali Price and Dan Biggar to continue. Moving into the centres, I expect Robbie Henshaw to retain his place, but move outside to 13 to accommodate Bundee Aki, as Elliot Daly was unsurprisingly unable to replicate his strong performances against a more physical midfield. In the back 3, Duhan van der Merwe had a solid game, but I expect him to lose his starting place to Josh Adams, who will have had an extra week to get his emotions in check, with Anthony Watson and Stuart Hogg keeping their spots.

On the bench, I don’t expect many changes, with Ken Owens and Kyle Sinckler holding their spots, while a great performance in the scrum from Mako Vunipola will elevate him to the bench ahead of Rory Sutherland, who was meant to be the replacement in this game before Jones’ injury elevated him to the starting spot. to complete the cover for the pack, Hamish Watson and Tadhg Beirne will keep their spots, as I don’t envision any citing for Watson. After solid performances off the bench, Conor Murray and Owen Farrell will keep their spots, while I think that Liam Williams‘ ability to also cover fullback will see him just hold out van der Merwe for the 23 shirt.

Who do you think will feature next weekend?

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Lions Tour 2021: South Africa “A” v British & Irish Lions

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa “A” v British & Irish Lions

With just 10 days until the first match of the 3-Test series, the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa took a step up in intensity with a match against South Africa “A”. Intended to be made up of the fringe players from the wider South African squad, however the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic—which has heavily impacted the South African squad’s training and caused the cancellation of their second warm-up match against Georgia—resulted in the home team picking a squad full of World Cup winners and experienced international, turning this into an unofficial fourth Test.

If there were any questions over the home side’s ability to match up after so long without rugby at this level, the South Africans soon answered those questions by establishing an early dominance, with Faf de Klerk’s kick following a turnover just evading Willie le Roux on the bounce, while Anthony Watson put in a superb covering tackle to deny Sbu Nkosi in the corner, with the hosts being forced to settle for a penalty. However it was not long until the South Africans were crossing the whitewash, with promising Lions attack reaching an abrupt end as Owen Farrell’s attempted chip into the South African 22 was charged down by Eben Etzebeth, with Damian de Allende picking up the loose ball and feeding Nkosi to go the length. Ten minutes later and the South Africans were on the offensive again, only to be denied by a knock-on at the breakdown metres from the line. Given a reprieve, the Lions soon opened their account for the night with an Owen Farrell penalty, but a moment of magic from Cheslin Kolbe saw the wing beat Chris Harris and draw in Elliot Daly before feeding captain Lukhanyo Am for another try. As the clock ticked down, the Lions had a sustained spell of pressure in the South African 22, and after both Faf de Klerk an Marco van Staden were sent to the bin, Wyn Jones thought he had scored with the final play of the half, only for replays to show a clear double movement, allowing the South Africans to go into the break with a 17-3 lead.

The Lions’ numerical advantage continued after the break, and they finally took advantage of it, with Wyn Jones legally getting the ball over the line this time and Owen Farrell kicking the conversion and adding a penalty a few minutes later. As substitutions began to disrupt the flow of the game, Louis Rees-Zammit almost scored in the corner, but van Staden and replacement Damian Willemse just managed to bring him down short of the line, while at the other end, Steyn dragged a penalty just left of the posts as well as missing the target with a late penalty. That left the tourists with the chance for 1 more attack before the final whistle with a try needed to win the game, but Zander Fagerson’s handling proved costly and he knocked on in contact to bring the game to an end, with the Lions suffering their first loss of the tour, 17-13.

Holding back

While the ideal tour (from the Lions’ perspective) would have been a 100% winning record, I can guarantee that Warren Gatland would much rather lose this match than one of the official Tests. As such, there was an important balance to meet between sending a message to Jacques Nienaber’s squad, while also not overly tipping their hand towards their tactics for the Tests. As such, I think we saw a few areas where the Lions tried to hide their plans for the tests.

First up is in the lineout, where you may remember a few weeks ago they were regularly going long and direct to the centres. Well in this match it was the complete opposite, with the majority of throws going tot he very front of the lineout. It’s rather understandable, Ken Owens hasn’t always shown himself to be the most reliable on longer throws, so a quick up and down at the front was a reliable way to win the ball back against Eben Etzebeth and co. However, as I have theorised since before the touring party was even named, don’t be shocked to see Tadhg Beirne providing a third lineout option at 6, with a range of throws that also includes the direct throw to the centres and some quick throws to the front before the Boks are fully set.

But even more notable tactically was the decision to repeatedly go for the tap penalty in the South African 22 when they had a numerical advantage. With both a forward and a back in the bin, the scrum was the obvious call here, as the extra man in the pack would allow the Lions the possibility of pushing over for a try and maybe even increased the numerical advantage as Trevor Nyakane was struggling in the scrums for the second match in a row, while the missing man in the South African back line would also leave gas on first phase for the Lions to exploit. However, while taking the scrums here may have led to more success in this match, it may have also allowed the Springboks to see some of the Lions’ key strike plays ahead of the Test series, giving them 10 days to find an answer.

While in the moment it may have looked like poor decisions from captain Conor Murray, I firmly believe that there was method to the madness, which could end up being crucial in the Test series.

A wider picture

There was one other tactical decision from the Lions in this match that I also sincerely hope was for the same reasons as above, but also can’t help but worry that it may have been the way they are planning to play.

The Lions had some fantastic attacking moments in this game, as they used tip-on passes to break the line in midfield while also causing real problems by beating the South African blitz defence to the outside, with a number of outside back and back row players getting a chance to run at wide open space. However, while these moments were highly successful, they were few and far between, as the game regularly devolved into an arm wrestle between the packs and the inside backs, which then ended in a poor kick from the Lions—with Owen Farrell especially having a poor day kicking out of hand—gifting possession back to the home team or hoping that the wingers could do something special on the chase.

Granted, this probably wasn’t helped by Dan Biggar pulling out injured (his replacement Farrell looking well off the pace, no real shock when he’s been playing against semi-professional teams last season) Josh Adams pulling out last minute due to the birth of his child and then an early injury to Liam Williams bringing on Ellit Daly at 15, but these are professional rugby players, who should be able to analyse that by keeping the ball tight they were playing into the hosts’ hands, as the South Africans put pressure on the breakdown and caused a number of turnovers with their destructive counter-rucking. With players like Lukhanyo Am, Frans Steyn and Damian de Allende in midfield, and the incredible options in their back row, keeping it tight is not a smart move for the Lions, and they need to utilise the quality of their players in open space, while getting in behind the South Africans will then put the pressure on them to get back onside before they can compete at the breakdown.

Hopefully when the first Test comes around, we see a Lions team willing to take the match to the Boks out wide. If they continue with tonight’s tactics, then they could be in trouble.

Passing the test

Following the last game against the Cell C Sharks, I put my neck on the line by predicting the Lions’ starting XV for the first Test. With a number of those players involved in this game, as well as some who just missed out, did anyone put their hands up to secure their spot or challenge for the shirt?

The obvious name that needs discussing here is Tom Curry. The Sale flanker had an incredible performance, winning turnovers, securing ball and carrying hard while also showing good speed when in put through a gap by Maro Itoje. Against most nations, I would happily pick Curry at 6 with Hamish Watson at 7, but against the Springboks, I feel that the extra ballast of Tadhg Beirne (who would be my first choice at lock if I was selecting my dream team from every current player) at 6 will be essential, leaving Curry and Watson fighting for the 7 shirt. Whoever wins out will have certainly earned their spot, while the other is surly guaranteed a space on the bench regardless of whether Gatland goes for a 6/2 split or the traditional 5/3.

Sticking with the forwards and replacement Adam Beard put in a strong performance off the bench. I still see Iain Henderson and Maro Itoje as the likely second row pairing for the first Test, but with Alun Wyn Jones on his way back to South Africa, his injury replacement has a good chance of keeping him out of the matchday 23 for the first Test at least.

Moving out to the backs and while he may have become the latest player to fall victim to Cheslin Kolbe’s footwork, Chris Harris put in another fantastic performance. I remember when it was announced that he was joining Gloucester, I was disappointed to see my team signing a defensive specialist with nothing much else to his game. Well either my read of him was completely wrong or he has grown his game considerably, as he is now one of the best 13s in the game, a top defender who has also developed a strong attacking game and can even fill in as an emergency wing. While I felt there was a chance that Robbie Henshaw’s history with Gatland from the last tour and his experience partnering Bundee Aki would give him priority if he could prove his fitness, I think that Harris has now proved himself worthy of the starting spot regardless.

Similarly, Anthony Watson made my predicted XV after just 1 match on tour due to my knowledge of his qualities that would be beneficial against the Springboks. Well I feel even more confident in that call after this game, where he repeatedly found success against his opposition winning the ball in the air, and should have scored a try when he outjumped Willie le Roux for an Owen Farrell cross-kick, only for Farrell’s kick to not be quite deep enough to put him over the line. I’m sure Warren Gatland’s heart was in his throat when Watson stayed down with an apparent ankle injury, but he completed the game and will surely be given the weekend off in preparation for the Test series.

And finally we reach a player whose stocks rose by actually not playing. Dan Biggar was due to start but replaced by Owen Farrell as he recovered from a slight ankle sprain. With Finn Russell having not played since the first Sharks game and Marcus Smth only just arriving and only having 2 caps to his name, it looked like this was between Farrell and Biggar for the starting 10 jersey, but a poor 80 minutes for the England captain has surely left him hoping for a spot on the bench, as a couple of attacking cross-kicks were off the mark, a penalty kicked to the corner went into the in-goal and of course his poor attempt at a chip which led to the opening try. Farrell looked off the pace of international rugby, so Gatland will surely be hoping Dan Biggar makes a quick—and full—recovery.

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South Africa v Georgia (Test 1)

South Africa v Georgia (Test 1)

Over 600 days after becoming World Champions, South Africa finally made their return to Test rugby with the first of 2 matches against Georgia as their warm-up for facing the British & Irish Lions. The long time without Test rugby certainly showed early on as the team struggled with cohesion and discipline in the first half hour, with Aphelele Fassi’s debut try the one bright spark as Tedo Abzhandadze kicked 3 penalties to put the Lelos ahead. South Africa grew into the game though, and took advantage of Beka Saghinadze’s yellow card to take a 19-9 halftime lead, with tries from Bongi Mbonambi and Cobus Reinach.

As the substitutions began after the break, the strength of the Spingbok pack saw Kwagga Smith go over from 5 metres out after a series of scrum penalties, and after Herschel Jantjies also sniped over from close range, Malcolm Marx completed the scoring with the easiest of finishes as a 5m catch and drive obliterated the Lelos defence and allowed the hooker to simply drop to the floor once over the line, securing a 40-9 victory.

Going for it

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thrilled to see the Springboks constantly turning down the chance for 3 points when they had a penalty and instead going for scrums or kicking for the corner. Often, I can understand going for the 3 to some degree, even if it just to build up a lead and then look to take chances later on, but in this game it always looked as if the Boks would be able to run away with it as they grew into the game, if only due to the face that Georgia were constantly defending, which would tire them out.

This was a warm-up game, and after almost 2 years without a Test match, South Africa needed to take every opportunity to compete in Test match conditions. While the Boks would likely take the 3 points in the Tests, there would be no benefit to waste almost 3 minutes (from the time the penalty is given, including making the decision to go for goal, the time allowed to take the kick—which rarely appears to be policed—and then the time to prepare for the restart) each time a penalty was given in range. Kickers do so much practice, and both Pollard and Jantjies are so experienced, a Test match without going for the 3 points will not harm them, whereas going for the corner and scrums allowed the Springboks to maximise the time they had actually playing rugby and working through any issues.

Don’t be surprised to see more of the same in the second Test, but a much more pragmatic approach once they face the Lions.

Power players

The Georgian scrum is one of the most feared weapons in the game, so to see it given such a torrid time by the Springboks shows the quality they have. While Trevor Nyakane struggled a little in the first half, Ox Nché held up well against the Lelos, but the true damage was done when superstars Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe came on.

While Kitshoff won a series of penalties against his opposite number in the build-up to Kwagga Smith’s try, Malherbe was dominant on his side, often getting a push on to wheel or crumple the Georgian pack. It brought back immediate memories of the Rugby World Cup final, where he put on a clinic at the scrum and was only really dealt with to some degree once Joe Marler came on.

It’s going to be a tough test for whoever wins the 2 loosehead spots in the Test 23—currently between Wyn Jones, Rory Sutherland or Mako Vunipola. If one of these players goes down injured, it will be interesting to see if Gatland goes to Joe Marler (who never received an email to say he was in contention for the squad) given his recent form and his Man of the Match performance in the Premiership final.

Weakness exploited

This may sound very harsh, but until Georgia sort out their lineout defence, they are not going to win a match against a Tier 1 Nation.

The Lelos’ issues defending the maul were apparent during the Autumn Nations Cup and things looked no better in this match, with both Bongi Mbonambi and Malcom Marx scoring from 5m catch and drives—Marx’s try especially looking like a walk in the park for the Springbok pack—and a number of other penalties being given away for collapsing the maul.

But it wasn’t just the maul this time that caused issues for the Lelos, as they gave away as many penalties at the lineout itself. Whether it was a tactic to try and disrupt the South Africans setting up the maul, or an attempt to win the ball back so they didn’t have to defend the maul, the Georgians were putting a man up to compete at most lineouts, but they were then giving away penalties for being too aggressive and taking the man in the air or bringing their jumper too far across the mid-line.

I find it hard to believe that these lineout and maul issues are down to just the players and thin that the Lelos desperately need to get someone in to sort out their lineout defence, or this will be a weakness that every team uses against them.

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Springbok Showdown

Springbok Showdown

The World Champions upped their preparation ahead of the Rugby Championship and their first match since winning the Rugby World Cup with the Springbok Showdown. 50 home-based players were split into 2 squads of 25 and faced off in a “Green v Gold” (though going by the kits, Green v White would be more accurate) match at Newlands, where they had been due to face Scotland in their first post-World Cup international.

In a sleep-inducing first half, Damian Willemse and Elton Jantjies traded penalties, but those of us who didn’t fall asleep saw Willemse miss 3 out of 4 kicks, leading to Gold trailing 6-3 at the break. The second half started with more positive rugby, but it was bad news for Gold as Willemse was rightly adjudged to have prevented a probable try by pulling back Yaw Penxe out wide, leading to a penalty try for Green and a 10-minute spell on the naughty step for the fly half. Though they gave away more penalties than Gold, Green built some dominance in the set piece and on 56 minutes, they drove a maul up to the try line from close range, allowing captain Siya Kolisi to break off and cross for the try. As time passed with little success for Gold, Green secured the win with a 3ʳᵈ try, positioning a number of forwards out wide for a cross-kick following a 2-man lineout, and a fortuitous bounce off the head of JD Schickerling and a scramble on the floor resulted in replacement back row Juarno Augustusdotting the ball down over the line. As the clock ticked down, a break from Lukhanyo Am set up Gold for a commiseration try, but Jason Jenkins was held up over the line and the Green defence held strong following the resultant scrum, with Thomas du Toit winning the penalty that allowed Gold to kick the ball to touch to finish the game as 25-9 victors.

Defence first

South Africa won the Rugby World Cup off the back of strong defensive displays and powerful set pieces allowing them to score a try or 2 to best their opponent. Judging by this match, there is no immediate change in tactics planned under new head coach Jacques Nienaber.

In the first half especially, the game very rarely went past a handful of phases before the ball was kicked downfield. Territory was at the forefront of players’ minds tactically, and though the attacking play increased after the break, it was still very limited.

It was very hard for the players in the back 3 to show their quality in attack and I felt especially sorry for Rosko Specman, who worked tirelessly in a support role and chasing kicks up and down his wing for very little reward.

Don’t expect the Springboks to be throwing the ball around in the coming years. A physical, defensive, territory-focused game may not be the most attractive rugby to watch, but South Africa do it so damn well.

Rusty

While a defensive performance isn’t the most attractive of things at the best of times, it becomes a hundred times worse when the players are as rusty as the 50 on show in this match. Super Rugby was suspended in mid-March, but unlike New Zealand and Australia, South Africa has not had any top-flight rugby since then and the only players who have were not included as they are based abroad.

While the teams often looked to play the territory game, there were times that they actually tried to played the ball, only for things to come to a swift close due to someone knocking the ball on or throwing a loose pass. Meanwhile a number of lineouts ended with scrappy ball off the top, putting the attacking team under immediate pressure. Even a large portion of the kicking game was questionable, with some deep kicks being fielded too easily and a number of more attacking kicks not paying off.

The Springboks still have time before the Rugby Championship begins, but they don’t have the competitive matches under their belt that the majority of the Australian and New Zealand squad do, and that could harm them in their opening matches.

Missed opportunity

With Handré Pollard currently missing through injury, this was the perfect opportunity for Damian Willemse to stake his claim for the Springboks 10 jersey and potentially even win the starting job ahead of Elton Jantjies. Unfortunately, things didn’t really work out for him.

His kicking off the tee left a lot to be desired, only managing to bisect the posts on 1 of 4 attempts, but that was far from the end of it. He certainly tried to get things going in attack and get the team firing, but too often this came to a quick end as players did not seem to be on his wavelength – though there was a lovely grubber in behind early on that required a wonderful covering tackle from far-side winger Penxe to stop Specman when a try looked likely. And then unfortunately, Willemse found himself spending 10 minutes in the bin having given away a penalty try by pulling back Penxe when he was chasing a kick into the in-goal, and by the time he returned to the pitch, he was moved to 15 as Curwin Bosch had entered the fray.

Granted Jantjies didn’t blow the proverbial roof off with his performance, but he did what was required to get the team the win and did not seem as involved in any errors or negative moments.

However, this may not be Willemse’s chances of a starting spot gone, as he put in a good performance after returning to the pitch at fullback, including controlling the air when coming forward to take high balls. Very few players got a chance to stand out in the back lines, while having a playmaker at 15 would give the Boks extra tactical options, so don’t be too surprised if the 22-year old gets the nod there to open the Rugby Championship.

Replacing the Beast

This is a new era for the World Champions, as they look to go on without Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, who retired from international rugby following the World Cup. Luckily, they been spoiled for years by already having one of the (in my opinion) top 5 looseheads in the world sharing time with him: Steven Kitshoff.

The Stormers prop did not have the best of starts to this game, struggling in some of the early scrums, but soon sorted things out and started winning penalties at the set piece with some degree of regularity. Meanwhile, he continued to excel around the park, with his handling skills highlighted by a great pickup from a terrible pass by Scarra Ntubeni deep in their own half. But more than anything, he has an engine, lasting longer than most of the front rowers while getting himself around the pitch, such as when he went from a scrum on the Green 22 to winning a turnover penalty – there are few props who win turnovers as often as him –  on the Gold 22 on the other side of the pitch following a Green break!

Kitshoff has the number 1 shirt secured for the forseeable future, the Boks just need to find the right man to come off the bench.