Can British and Irish Lions handle Springboks’ ‘bombs’
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CAPE TOWN - The Springboks surprised all and sundry with a dynamic attacking approach in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final against England.
On that memorable November night in Yokohama, Rassie Erasmus’s team came out all guns blazing, and it set the tone for a mixture of physical power and attacking finesse – with wings Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe becoming the first South Africans to score tries in a World Cup final.
But in the semi-final, it was more a chess match, as the Boks were wary of making mistakes against Wales, who were coached by Warren Gatland – who is now in charge of the British and Irish Lions.
The South Africans used their boots liberally against Wales, tactically and at the posts, and flyhalf Handre Pollard slotted a late angled penalty from over 40 minutes to clinch the victory.
Will it be the same situation in the first Test against the Lions at Cape Town Stadium tomorrow (6pm kick-off)? Or will we see the Boks keeping the ball in hand for large parts, like against England? Probably the former …
But whichever way the hosts go in terms of their game plan, there will be lots of kicking, and if done well, it could clear the path to victory. Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk is at the heart of the Bok ‘boot brigade’. The blond-haired No 9 has been heavily criticised in the past for overdoing those box-kicks at times, and rightly so.
When he gets it right, though, it puts tremendous pressure on the opposition. De Klerk sometimes takes the wrong option when kicking, like he did for SA A last week against the
Lions when he looked for space despite his team being inside the opposition’s half.
But it’s about getting enough height on those box-kicks, so that wings Mapimpi and Kolbe can contest the ball in the air. Gatland has gone for Duhan van der Merwe and Anthony Watson out wide for the Lions, and it will be interesting to see how they handle those ‘bombs’.
Van der Merwe is a big unit at 1.93m and 105kg, so De Klerk has the opportunity to also put the ball in behind the Scottish star and turn him around, while someone like Bok flank Pieter-Steph du Toit is also a good chaser who can contest the high ball.
Watson is much more agile and is strong in the air, so perhaps little grubber kicks on the ground would work better, where Mapimpi can use his speed to hunt for the ball.
Another option in the kicking game is to make greater use of Handre Pollard’s right foot. Pollard kicks to goal, but most of the tactical kicking is done by De Klerk. Perhaps the Bok flyhalf could launch a few up-and-unders up the middle of the pitch, for centres Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am to chase.
Full-back Willie le Roux also has a clever left boot, and he often comes into the attack with a little chip here and a grubber there, and he can dovetail with Pollard with the cross-kicks as well.
It must be said that the Lions, though, are even more loaded for the kicking battle. The selection of Scotland No 9 Ali Price ahead of Conor Murray was explained by Gatland as being a result of his speedy service on attack against the Stormers.
But there is no doubt that Price has a superb left boot. He gets considerable height on his box-kicks, and good distance when needed too. Ireland’s Murray used to be the best box-kicker in the world, but just seems to have lost his spark in recent seasons.
Flyhalf Dan Biggar’s creativity extends from his passing game to his variety of kicks, and a big plus for the Lions is to have Elliot Daly’s left foot at outside centre. With the Englishman there, the Lions can split their attack when necessary to stretch the Bok back-three. Full-back Stuart Hogg has a solid boot too, but his greatest strength is winning the high ball.
So, a lot of the Lions’ kicking strategy will depend on their chase-line. Can Van der Merwe get to the Bok catcher in time?
Gatland said this week that he is expecting “40 kicks in a game” from the Boks. It’s one thing knowing what’s coming, but it’s another to handle it …