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British and Irish Lions 2021: Emotionally-charged South Africa pose huge challenge

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Published in Rugby
Friday, 23 July 2021 15:18

When South Africa won the 2019 World Cup, their then-head coach Rassie Erasmus served the world's media with a reality check.

"In South Africa, pressure is not having a job," he said after the Springboks beat England 32-12.

"Pressure is one of your close relatives being murdered. Rugby shouldn't be something that creates pressure. Rugby should be something that creates hope."

An emotionally-charged South Africa dominated England that day. Arguably, Siya Kolisi and his side have added incentive against the British and Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.

At one point, Covid-19 threatened to derail the Lions tour with 14 of the hosts' players and six members of management testing positive, along with one of the tourists' management.

South Africa was battling a third wave of the virus when the Lions arrived and, more recently, the country has seen riots and looting sparked by the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma.

Talismanic captain Kolisi, who has recovered from Covid-19 just in time for the first Test, says his side "will give it everything".

Given the Lions only tour South Africa every 12 years, they know they "will never get this opportunity again".

The hosts spent six days confined to hotel rooms in isolation and have played only one Test match since they won the World Cup, but former Springbok flanker Francois Louw says that will give them a "collective motivation" too.

With so much to emotionally fuel South Africa, it becomes clear what sort of mental challenge awaits Warren Gatland's side, let alone the expected physical battle.

"South Africans, we all hold our country very close to our heart, and the guys find courage in that," Louw explained on BBC Radio 5 Live.

"There is the extra they need from the surroundings and what is going on there, the uprisings and unrest, and also the fact there just hasn't been any rugby played for a long time.

"It is a game that's so big for us in South Africa and the people peg so much on that.

"They want to see the Springboks play and want to see them perform and that really does push the guys a lot."

Thankfully for Lions fans, this crop of players is so impressive that Gatland says Saturday's team was the hardest Test selection he has made in his three tours as head coach.

The visitors are bolstered by the remarkable return of captain Alun Wyn Jones, who will start after dislocating his shoulder against Japan just four weeks ago.

Experienced Lions like Owen Farrell and Conor Murray are relegated to the bench, while 2017 star Taulupe Faletau is left out of the matchday 23 altogether.

Scotland scrum-half Ali Price starts in place of Murray, while his national team's winger, South African-born Duhan van der Merwe, is preferred to prolific try scorer Josh Adams.

"Ali Price, Duhan van der Merwe and others are stepping into the unknown," said former Lions scrum-half Matt Dawson.

"They have absolutely no idea how ferocious South Africa are going to be on Saturday. They are going to be superhuman.

"I am not saying it is right or wrong, but the risk is that you've taken two players out who have experienced that environment and were probably mentally ready for it."

The Lions will not be greeted by the usual sea of red at Cape Town Stadium, with no touring fans in South Africa and the game held behind closed doors. But the uncertainty surrounding the tour may give the visitors their own edge.

Playing games in a pandemic is some feat in itself and the rest of the Test series looks promising now all three games will be played in Cape Town to reduce the risk of coronavirus disruption.

The Lions made sacrifices to enter the Covid-secure bubble, with Welshman Adams having to watch the birth of his first child on a video call.

And Gatland's men may be further worked up by the apparent fury at the use of a South African television match official for the Test series.

But regardless of who reaches the greatest emotional heights and copes best with the pressure, perhaps the most joy is in the fact the game can be played at all.

"It's been a while now with Covid and people not knowing what was on the horizon," added Lions centre Robbie Henshaw.

"It's great to be finally here."

Line-ups

South Africa: Le Roux; Kolbe, Am, De Allende, Mapimpi; Pollard, De Klerk; Nche, Mbonambi, Nyakane, Etzebeth, Mostert, Kolisi (capt), Du Toit, Smith

Replacements: Marx, Kitshoff, Malherbe, De Jager, Elstadt, H Jantjies, E Jantjies, Willemse

British and Irish Lions: Hogg; A Watson, Daly, Henshaw, Van der Merwe; Biggar, Price; W Jones, Cowan-Dickie, Furlong, Itoje, AW Jones (capt), Lawes, Curry, Conan.

Replacements: Owens, Sutherland, Sinckler, Beirne, H Watson, Murray, Farrell, L Williams.

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