The COVID curveball has cast a long, dark shadow and totally re-shaped the southern hemisphere’s rugby landscape.
The effects have been felt heavily in South Africa.
They say that snow on the mountain brings wisdom and an astute perspective, but being caught directly in my country’s downward spiral over a fiscal cliff, I somehow doubt that.
I’m watching helplessly as our politicos trample the rich 2019 World Cup legacy underfoot as factions squabble around an altar of avarice and self-enrichment versus governance to uplift the downtrodden.
Rassie Erasmus: a blue blood son of our rich soils, prime motivation that our country needs a World Cup win to uplift and unite us has become legend globally and even more visionary than appointing Siya Kolisi as the symbol of a united country – a vision achieved of how a united rugby fraternity becomes stronger together to rise from the Ashes by simply embracing reality and Mandela’s vision of an equal society for all our children to play under the sun and share equally in our countries rich bounty.
Sadly, corruption is thriving, becoming entrenched and destroying the very essence and fabric of our country, while government squabbling has severely delayed the rollout of COVID vaccines – further isolating and delaying our rugby from international competition.
Rugby’s COVID hangover has been good and bad to South Africa. On the one side, there is the Cape’s amateur clubs’ combined power grab decimating the once-vaunted Stormers setup, but also Jake White’s overdue return to the Bulls heartland to mine new talent and retread old talents. There’s the first true commercialisation of our rugby talent kicking off at the Sharks on the shores of the Indian ocean, all against a backdrop of a new frontier beckoning across the equator for our four erstwhile Super rugby franchises into the unchartered waters of a new Pro 16 tournament about to kick off in Europe.
COVID exploded SANZAAR’s slavish pursuit of commercial gain and diminished the once vibrant Super rugby competition down south with only the Nations cup remaining on wobbly ground amid rumblings up north for the Springboks or Pumas to replace the Six Nations whipping boys, Italy, gaining ground daily.
Change is in the air. International rugby is in robust health and itching to open new frontiers to raise the bar ever higher and write new chapters in rugby’s history while the World Cup champion Boks have not laced up a single boot in anger since their heroics in October 2019.
The Lions tour is the last remaining bastion of the original amateur rugby ethos of the four home nations combining to tour their erstwhile southern colonies and test local rugby on their home grounds. The folly of now retreading the 2021 Lions tour by hosting it in the UK goes directly against this ethos and should never happen.
A much better idea is to just postpone it by a year – the short term commercial implications will be recovered in multiples once the tour takes place with guaranteed elevated interest due to the delay.
First choice is not to try and fix something that’s not broken; a Lions series in the UK is not a Lions tour. Besides, our bungling government is finally getting COVID under control and three months hence with normal protocols there isn’t any reason to fiddle with the planned tour itinerary and location. Rugby will be the richer for not tampering with a proven, traditional winning formula. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
The player resource cupboard as always is still brimming with overflowing talent both established and new. The normal attrition of frontline stars after an epic campaign have now come and passed. The prop resources are aplenty with Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe shoo-ins while Bongi Mbonambi is back and Malcolm Marx is setting stadiums on fire in Japan, warranting his label as the best hooker in rugby.
The lock pairing of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager is building up steam, while RG Snyman is raring to go and Kolisi is going back to basics sans captaincy pressures at pastures new in the Shark camp after his heady journey the last 18 months. Pieter-Steph du Toit and Duane Vermeulen have cleaned up their niggles and are ready to build up new heads of steam.
Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach are firing on all cylinders, Handre Pollard is about to return, while Damian de Allende has become a Munster stalwart with oodles of talent. This is keeping Lukhanyo Am honest outside him, while Frans Steyn is now the glue that keeps the Cheetah show in the headlines. The little pocket rocket Cheslin Kolbe astounds every day, with even the flyhalf playmaking berth now in his resume. Rassie will possibly expand his influence by moving him to fullback.
Retreading an international player can be a stroke of genius, like moving Stephen Larkham from fullback to no.10 and du Toit from lock to the side of the scrum. Kolbe’s playmaking skills might just be better utilised from deep. Out wide, the options are legion; Makazole Mapimpi is an evergreen and Rosko Specman could be an apt replacement to fill Kolbe’s twinkle-toes and stepping boots. Defending against Kolbe, Mapimpi and Specman will give many opposition coaches a few sleepless nights!
This is all despite my personal favourite; Aphelele Fassie from the Sharks, who is now bulked up, polished and set to become a new international sensation.
The Lions under Warren Gatland’s guiding hand will be a handful, but Rassie’s troops will be a formidable obstacle for his ambitions to achieve the first ever triple crown as Lions coach.
It will have a hollow ring if he does achieve it on the playing fields of their home countries.