The Springboks-Lions series is beginning to heat up rather fervently and has been ratcheted up even further by articles circulating out of South Africa about a whitewash series victory to the Boks.
Much has been made of hobbits coming to the land of giants, a pensioner as the Lions leader, a head coach out of touch and a squad devoid of real substance or players with a point of difference.
However, a salvo has been returned by an overseas rugby scribe condemning the Boks as seen by the rest of the rugby world as nothing more than pretenders to their World Cup crown, a farfetched illusion of a team being the best rugby team in the world currently.
But accusations that the Springboks have hidden away, are ducking opposition and preserving their aura only by having their ranking frozen and by not having their mettle truly tested are way off the mark.
The advent of COVID-19 has affected all countries in varying degrees. South Africa has felt its full force and is still in throes of it, but to see the Springboks essentially being called cowards is both over the top and without merit. Player safety was the driving force behind the decision to not participate in the 2020 Rugby Championship, and while I didn’t agree with that choice – I’m sure most fans didn’t – I did respect it. But it is not as if the players refused to play or downed tools.
The idea that the Springboks received a favourable route to the World Cup is also ludicrous. You can only play against who you are drawn to play, that’s how any sporting tournament works. You play the cards you are dealt. The Springboks actually had it all to do after their pool loss to the All Blacks, and only great teams have the mental strength required to deal with the pressure of having their backs against the wall when another loss would see them sent home.
To suggest beating Japan as the home nation – after their monumental victories over Ireland and Scotland – was easy is ignorant. Wales had beaten the Boks on four separate occasions before their semi-final showdown, but it was the Boks who showed their mental strength in keeping cool under pressure and finding a way to win. This is also what great teams do.
Their demolition of England in the final was the culmination of their two-year plan, and the Boks showcased it on the biggest stage in rugby, especially after the English press had essentially offered the cup to England as a mere formality in that weeks building up to the match.
The Springboks are undercooked, there is no way around that. The lack of international Test matches will have been of major concern to Rassie Erasmus and Jaques Nienaber, but they have made the best of a difficult situation. While Georgia will provide the Boks with two hit-outs before the Lions arrive, those Tests will serve as a way for the team to gel with one another again, to get rusty combinations working in tandem again and to familiarise themselves with how their teammates play.
What the Springboks will have over the Lions will be memories of how their collective effort as a group won the World Cup when no-one gave them a chance. The Boks team spirit forged over the last two years is palpable when one looks at the documentary Chasing the Sun, which details the togetherness, belief, trust, and gees that go with this group.
The Lions will have to forge something similar if they are to walk away victorious. They have the players and staff to do just that, especially considering the motivation being provided by South African rugby scribes.
This Springboks team could in time become one of the finest Boks teams in South Africa’s illustrious rugby history if they beat the Lions. Winning a Rugby Championship or two and consistently beating the home nations on their end-of-year tours will be further goals down the line. For now, the Springboks will go a long way to proving their doubters wrong once again with a Lions series win.
Iconic baseball player Babe Ruth once said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”
Team sport is about how the group performs as a collective, and as we have seen before, this Springbok team plays for one another.