JOHANNESBURG – Call it what you want: Emirates Airline Park or Ellis Park – the venue of South Africa’s greatest rugby triumph when they won the World Cup at the first time of asking in 1995 has not always treated the Springboks well.
But today they can make a massive statement and really turn the ground into a place feared by the opposition.
Allister Coetzee’s Boks go into the third and final Test against France 2-0 up in the series and in a very good space to make it a whitewash.
Boosting their chances of doing just that is the fact eight Lions players will be in the Bok team today, and how they love playing at Ellis Park.
In Super Rugby, they have gone 12 games unbeaten at home, stretching back to April last year, with many of those triumphs coming with big winning margins and plenty of tries being scored.
Under Warren Whiteley’s leadership, fellow Lions players Andries Coetzee, Courtnall Skosan, Elton Jantjies, Franco Mostert, Malcolm Marx and now also Ruan Dreyer in the starting team, and Jaco Kriel sitting on the bench, will be able to give the Boks “inside knowledge” of what to expect.
It could even have been a few more Lions men in green-and-gold today had Ross Cronjé not picked up a concussion a week ago and Lionel Mapoe not been released from the squad.
Be that as it may, the Boks will be hoping a full crowd will cheer them to a third straight victory this year – as they’ve done with the Lions in recent times.
And the Boks will need every bit of help they can get because history tells us that not only do the Boks enjoy Ellis Park, the opposition do, too.
Just last year, the Boks had to rely on Ruan Combrinck to come off the bench and save the day at Ellis Park (32-26) to level the series against Ireland, while we all know how much New Zealand have enjoyed it as a venue before.
Added to that, France have a good history at the ground, having never lost in four previous visits.
The Boks, though, are favourites today. With Whiteley leading the way, why would anyone think otherwise?
And how he is looking forward to the opportunity of leading the national team on his home ground…
“It’s special, for sure,” he said yesterday. “I’m excited and looking forward to it, but I know I have a job to do.”
He knows having a near full-house cheering on the Boks will be a boost. “It’s an unbelievable feeling knowing it’ll be so full. We’re grateful as players to receive that kind of support. It’s amazing that the country is so much behind us. The atmosphere is going to be awesome.”
Coetzee, who’s come under some fierce criticism since taking over the Bok hot seat, said he is also looking forward to finishing the series well at the Lions’ iconic home ground.
“To think there are going to be over 50 000 fans... it’s wonderful and the players enjoy playing in front of big crowds. I know they’re going to want to play well and reward those fans, especially at this time in our country, it’ll be good to lift the nation’s spirits.”
For several of the Boks today, like fullback Coetzee, wings Skosan and Raymond Rhule and flank Jean-Luc du Preez, among others, it will be a special Test; their first for South Africa at Ellis Park. “The responsibility on their shoulders is massive, but I’m sure they won’t let anyone down,” said Coetzee.
The Boks will be keen to let the world know they are back after a disappointing 2016 – and that Ellis Park is again a place to be feared by opponents.