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Locking horns with the Boks: The Lions’ best bet for second row

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Expert
10th March, 2021
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Tour the Republic without at least skilled and belligerent locks – lose.

The Lions prevailed in 1974, after futility in 1910, 1924, 1938, (a close run-in) 1955, 1962 and 1968. As Nick Bishop rightfully noted, the foundation of the Invincible Lions was the lock partnership of Irish legend Willie John McBride and Scottish great Gordon Brown.

A series win – as opposed to a one-off victory – in South Africa requires a team to outplay the Springboks in the second row. Hence the paucity of Lions successes in South Africa (the Lions have won only about 30 per cent of the Tests, better than each Home Nation’s all-time record in RSA, but not good enough to take many series).

Bok locks tend to be the best Boks.

My ongoing series studying some of the busiest and best Tests by modern tighthead locks revealed a superlative performance by Bakkies Botha in 2007, but he was part of one of the best lock pairs in rugby history: key to the 2009 Bok triumph over the Paul O’Connell-led Lions.

To know which lock duo was ascendant, a simple rule of thumb is to look at which side chopped and changed less. In 2009, Victor Matfield and Botha would’ve been among the first typed in, while beefy Simon Shaw was slotted in too late in the series by the Lions.

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In 1974, as I well remember, having attended two of the four Tests, the Bok locks were clearly not great.

And compared to five-time Lion and OBE McBride, and his lock mate, the brawny “Broon frae Troon,” a 30-cap Scot who led the Mean Machine in the ’70s and toured as a Lion three times, both inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, the Bok locks of 1974 were quite ‘vincible’.

Four different Bok locks were used as starters. Big John Williams (6-foot-7) started twice (the first and fourth Tests) with different partners: similarly lanky Kevin de Klerk and then the rugged Johannes Lodewikus “Moaner” van Heerden.

Moaner paired with the hapless (and massive, if not ultra fit) Johan de Bruyn in the second Test.

Six-foot-five Gordon Brown was not a stranger to fistfights in matches – his career ended with him chasing down an antagonist in Glasgow and beating him up. But his most famous bash was against de Bruyn.

Even in a tour famous for the ’99 Call’, a ‘pretaliation’ plan by McBride to go off on Boks en masse, Brown’s smash of Test debutante de Bruyn stands out.

De Bruyn’s face was battered so hard by Brown that the Free Stater’s glass eye flew out and landed in the mud. Brown recalled all 30 players and the referee crawled around on all fours to search for the big Bok’s eyeball.

rugby generic

(Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

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De Bruyn (who never played again for South Africa) plonked it back in the gaping hole in his face and kept going.

Years later, at a 2001 fundraiser for Brown, who was stricken with terminal lymphoma, de Bruyn was flown in to surprise the great Scottish star.

The jovial one-cap Bok presented that glass eyeball to Brown, mounted on a wooden rugby ball. “I’ll be keeping my eye on you forevermore,” the then-150 kilogram de Bruyn said to Brown, to applause.

The other overmatched Bok locks of 1974 were no legends. Kevin de Klerk and Williams each won 13 caps in all. Moaner van Heerden earned 17 caps in all but he was never mobile enough to be a Bok great.

South African locks are often quite athletic for their gargantuan size. The current French team use two South Africans as their locks.

Ireland has one. Italy, too.

Australia‘s unlucky legend Rob Vickerman began life in the Cape.

But the 1974 vintage were plodders, except maybe for de Klerk, later. His Bok debut came in his one Test in the series.

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He and Moaner fought over the Bok 4 jersey for years. In 1974, they both failed.

The Celtic firm of McBride and Brown reigned supreme over the slow Boks, with a cameo in the dead rubber by Englishman Chris Ralston.

This was not the case in other Lions tours of South Africa, including in 2009, when the hosts were world champs, having humbled England in the final.

2021 shapes similarly: the Boks are stocked with locks, who were instrumental in the pack-centric world championship game against mainstays of these Lions.

Mean Moaner, glass-eyed Johan, limited Kevin, and string bean Williams would not have lasted one round with the five locks who won South Africa the World Cup in 2019.

Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, RG Snyman, Franco Mostert, and Pieter-Steph du Toit (a lock until 2018) all weigh in between 113 and 120 kilograms and the shortest (the indefatigable Mostert) is 6-foot-7.

Pieter-Steph Du Toit dives in for a try

Pieter-Steph Du Toit dives in for a try. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

They are all in their prime, except RG, who is still rising.

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Etzebeth debuted at age 21 on the way to 85 caps.

Seldom outplayed, and capable of both extreme brutality and showing surprisingly soft hands, he won the respect of the entire South African rugby in annus horribilis (2017), when he played all 80 minutes of every Rugby Championship Test and every minute of the French tour, winning man of the match three times, even as the Boks had their worst year.

His performance in the 24-25 loss to the All Blacks at Newlands was one of the best by a Bok lock, ever.

Lood de Jager will get his half-century cap soon. He is setting Sale on fire in the Premiership.

He was also was in most teams of the tournament in the 2015 World Cup.

55-cap PSDT was the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year – enough said.

Nobody outworks 39-cap Mostert, and he is among the best ruck cleaners in the world. He replaced Lood early in the Rugby World Cup final and the Boks never missed a beat.

But the most naturally talented of all just might be young 23-cap RG. The 80-metre try he ignited and created versus Scotland at Murrayfield in 2018 looks like a two-metre faster Finn Russell leading a break.

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The Boks can throw five world-class locks at the Lions in each Test. All of them command huge salaries at the top European clubs. None are rookies, one-eyed, slow or lacking in power.

Lood and RG are great offloaders in contact. Etzebeth is used by club and country as a pod playmaker, and is shockingly fast (a 13 in schools until he grew at 16).

Mostert is a ruck gorilla. PSDT is PSDT. They all pinch lineouts. All are strong ballast in scrum and maul.

So, the 2021 Lions won’t have as big an edge over the Bok locks as their 1974 ancestors did. They will have to gain parity and hope to edge it.

Who are their lock stocks?

Alun Wyn Jones refuses to fade. Maro Itoje wants to be the best. Jonny Gray is a tackle zombie, having surpassed his big brother.

Alun Wyn Jones

Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones. (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

James Ryan is either overrated or underrated, but he’s one of the best locks in the world. Iain Henderson might even be better.

Courtney Lawes is injured and George Kruis is in Japan. Joe Launchbury is my favourite English player. And Cory Hill is an athletic big Welshman.

Who should be the four or five Test locks?

In my assessment, you cannot bully the Bok locks, but you cannot afford to be bullied either. Being bullied is a physical issue, for sure, but it starts with the mind.

Willie John McBride wasn’t bigger than his Bok opponents. Nobody will be stronger in the gym than Etzebeth, and no Lion will look down on de Jager and Snyman.

PSDT may be more naturally athletic than all of them, Itoje included, but the Lions just need an edge, not domination.

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I’d select AWJ (if healthy), Ryan, and Itoje as 4-5-6 starters for the first Test. This combination would be canny, relentless, and rangy.

On the bench, grinder Gray and bolter Hill, who has the body to challenge Mostert at the breakdown. If AWJ cannot go, I would use Henderson.

This match-up makes mouths water.

What say you, Roarers?

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