Underestimate the British and Irish Lions at your own peril
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It amazes me that some South Africans were surprised when the British and Irish Lions smashed the local Lions by almost 60 points in their tour opener.
It was always going to happen for two reasons: Firstly and most significantly, the Lions have an exceptionally talented, vastly experienced, meticulously prepared, and highly motivated squad who have come to this country on a mission; and secondly, the local Lions (and also the Sharks, Bulls, and Stormers) are under-strength and pale imitations of the provincial sides of the amateur era when the British Lions were given a torrid time by the likes of Transvaal, Northern Transvaal, and Western Province, while even the platteland (country) sides had enough firepower to give the tourists a working over and soften them up for the Boks.
Let's have some context on this. Pre 1996, South Africa’s rugby strength was in South Africa. All of it. In 2021, a quarter of a century into professionalism, there are over 600 South African players earning a living abroad. That is over 600 players that are not packed into our provincial structures.
Our current provincial sides comprise largely up-and-coming players who, in time, will join the exodus to Europe and Japan to earn lucrative foreign currency. Of course some stay, a few even return as veterans (the Bulls have captured this market) but the reality is that many top South African players are not in the country.
That is why the local Lions vs the tourists on Saturday night was men against boys, and there was only going to be one winner. When there is a major difference in class, 110 percent effort from the outclassed can only get you so far and, usually in the last quarter of the game, class runs riot.
For the life of me, I cannot understand why there is arrogance in some quarters in South Africa as to how the Test series is going to pan out. Those who predict a Springbok annihilation of the Lions are either ignorant or foolish, or both, and the fact that some of that opinion are members of the media is frankly an embarrassment.
It will be a close-fought series, yes, but never will it be a Bok rout of the Lions and, interestingly, every sports betting agency in the world has the Lions as slight favourites to win the series...
Four years ago, the Lions drew a series with an All Blacks team at the height of their considerable powers and playing at home; before that, they won a series in Australia (2013). Now, under the same coach, they have come to South Africa with a single-minded purpose of beating the Boks after having come so close in 2009.
Warren Gatland was an assistant coach on that 2009 tour and hasn't forgotten the bitterness of the heart-breaking defeat in the second Test at Loftus, Morne Steyn's series-clinching moment of glory...
To state the obvious, the Lions squad comprises the very best players from four top ten countries: England is third on the World Rugby rankings, Wales fourth, Ireland fifth, and Scotland ninth.
That means Warren Gatland is coaching the cream of the crop of the northern hemisphere bar the French. If this was a Barbarians team or a World XV on a fun jamboree to the highveld to open a new stadium or such trivial matter, it would be different. But this is the Lions and every minute of every game each one of these top international players is hellbent on performing to his utmost so that he can impress and make the Test team.
The lifeblood of a Lions tour is competition for places in the Test team and the wisest thing Gatland has done is to reassure his squad that he is open-minded and that every player has a shot at making it.
These blokes aren’t here on a “jol,” they are here to beat the world champions and the South Africans still hanging on to the World Cup euphoria of 2019 and expecting a Springbok romp are living in cloud cuckoo land.
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber know it — Rassie getting close to the action as a water boy at the Georgia game tells me how frantic he is getting — and the rest of South Africa need to sit up and give the Lions the respect they deserve.