The British & Irish Lions have received a huge boost following confirmation that all three test matches against South Africa will now be played at sea level. The plan had been for the second and third tests to be played in Johannesburg, but Covid-19 fears have now led to the entire series being moved to the Cape Town Stadium.
Springboks traditionally enjoy more success playing test matches at altitude, but after “extensive consultation” with medical experts and with teams already in their respective “biobubbles”, it has been decided that the safest option is for both sides stay.
“The data pointed in only one direction,” said Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby.
“The series has already been significantly interrupted by Covid-19 and a return to Gauteng at this time would only increase the risks. We now have two teams in biosecure environments with no positive cases and no one isolated. Returning to Highveld now would expose the series to a new risk. Everybody wants to see both teams, at their strongest, play an unforgettable series over the next three weekends and this decision gives us the best chance of seeing that happen. “
Lions Managing Director Ben Calveley said tourists “fully supported” the decision, which is not a surprise given the lessons of recent history. In 1997, when the Lions last won a series in South Africa, they won the first two events at sea level, in Cape Town and Durban, respectively.
The touring team can also be privately encouraged by the Bok day squad named after Saturday’s inaugural event, despite the presence of 21 members of the 2019 World Cup-winning South African squad. At first glance, running with the Pamplona bulls would be less daunting than trying to evade a power-packed home team, but several of the starting Boks have played little rugby recently.
Until recently, the iconic South African captain Siya Kolisi and his teammates Makazole Mapimpi and Ox Nché were self-isolating with Covid-19 and had to undergo heart and lung tests to ensure their participation. The forward-facing six-two bench division, dubbed the “Bomb Squad” at the 2019 World Cup, has also been temporarily disabled with the Boks’ Handrè Pollard and winger Mapimpi is not considered to have played enough recent rugby to justify the risk of having only two backs in reserve.
At No. 8, too, the absence of ultra-physical Duane Vermeulen through injury has prompted a promotion for Kwagga Smith, a very different type of player with experience in sevens. Then there’s the fascinating decision to leave arguably South Africa’s top two mainstays, Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff, on the bench and start the game in their place with Nché and Trevor Nyakane.
Nyakane was well organized by Wyn Jones during the first half of the SA A game last week and, with RG Snyman also injured and Lood de Jager out of rugby, the Boks will rely to some degree on muscle memory. However, head coach Jacques Nienaber made it clear that keeping Malherbe and Kitshoff on the bench is a deliberate tactic. “We see our front ranks as a couple, as a unit,” he said. “We can exchange them and there will be no weakness.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism