This weekend, the first of three tests between the British and Irish Lions and world champions South Africa takes place, with all three games being played in Cape Town for COVID-19 reasons. However, whilst we already know the ins and outs of the Lions squad, this tactical analysis will focus on the Springboks side confirmed for tomorrow’s match, picking out the key players that the Lions will need to be especially watchful of.
The South Africa team
This image lists the full Springboks squad for tomorrow’s game.
Some notable names to pick out are former Wasps and current Toyota Verblitz full-back Willie le Roux, who carries a strong presence at the back and will be difficult to get past. Montpellier fly-half Handre Pollard has been a dependable player in the middle of the field, and was the top points scorer at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, whilst lock Lood de Jager, who is on the bench, has been one of Sale Sharks’ most important players over the last couple of seasons, always looking to penetrate defences and use his strength to cause them plenty of problems.
However, there are four players in their starting XV that could be essential in getting South Africa past what looks on paper to be a strong Lions team.
When it comes to world-class wingers, Cheslin Kolbe is undoubtedly one that immediately comes to mind. He has pace, a try threat, and is always a handful for whichever team he is playing against. He was a major part of Toulouse’s excellent form last season, which included them reaching and winning the European Rugby Champions Cup last year.
One of his key characteristics is constantly changing direction when attacking forwards. This image, taken from the 2019 World Cup final, shows Kolbe receiving the ball from flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, in the yellow circle, before running at the England try line. England captain Owen Farrell has come across to cut him off, as the red arrow indicates, but this is where the winger is clever. Instead of using pace to get through before the gap is closed off, he sidesteps the Saracens utility back, opening up enough of a gap inside him to run through and score.
Kolbe is only one half of South Africa’s wide threat, with their other regular winger, Makazole Mapimpi, posing as big a threat, and neither can be allowed to have any space or time on the ball. England found out in 2019 what happens if they are given both of those, and the British and Irish Lions will not want to make the same mistakes.
Faf de Klerk
In order for any team, domestic or international, to succeed in rugby union, they need to have a dynamic scrum-half on the field. South Africa are blessed when it comes to this position, with Herschel Jantjies and former Northampton Saints player Cobus Reinach both excellent options, but the one that always catches attention is Sale Sharks’ Faf de Klerk. He is a livewire in the middle of the field, possessing plenty of energy and creativity, and teams find it difficult to stop him when he is in form.
One thing that opponents struggle to deal with is his penetrating runs. Here, against Newcastle Falcons in the English Premiership, he has got through a gap in the defence, with his body position allowing the ball to be offloaded behind the Newcastle players. This helps his team to keep their opponents on the back foot, and is what often leads to their tries. This particular offload to England flanker Tom Curry allows winger Denny Solomona to run through and score, demonstrating why de Klerk is such a key figure in his team’s attacking play.
Defensively, de Klerk is just as influential. Despite being the smallest player on the pitch, he leads defensive charges, such as here, when he is tackling former Bristol Bears and Ireland fly-half Ian Madigan. His determination is highlighted by the distance between him and the other Sale players, and his ability to close the ball down here prevents Bristol from moving it into space. His anticipation of where the next pass will go is relentless, aiding his team in keeping opponents back. Therefore, the British and Irish Lions will need to be at the top of their game to stop him, but it will be a tough ask for them.
Despite having a reputation for getting into fights during games, there is no doubting that Toulon’s Eben Etzebeth is one of the best locks in world rugby, and there is a reason he is included more times than not on the South Africa team sheet.
Here, whilst playing for his previous club, Cape Town-based Stormers, we can see him running at the Sharks defence with the ball. Etzebeth is a traditional second row player, in that he is tall and powerful, and he always uses both of those characteristics when on the field. He doesn’t fear anyone, and loves colliding with opponents, in this case the Sharks defence. His collision success rate is unbelievable, with most opponents, including Sharks on this occasion, unable to hold him back at the best of times.
The same goes for his defensive play, as he sets up to stop opponents breaking through his team’s line, which is why South Africa depend on him so much. Against the British and Irish Lions, his presence will be key in preventing their quicker players from finding space in their defence, whilst he will also start many of the Springboks’ attacks, trying to win them vital metres.
Flanker Siya Kolisi is a leader in every definition of that word. Having become the first black player to captain South Africa, he led the Springboks to World Cup glory in 2019, and will no doubt be hoping to add a series win against the British and Irish Lions to that list of achievements.
Currently playing for Sharks, who are based in Durban, the forward makes plenty of key tackles at crucial stages in games, and does a lot of the unseen work on the field. Here, his tackle ends the opposing attack, setting South Africa up to counter-attack and score. Therefore, whilst he doesn’t score too many points himself, Kolisi is always involved in the build-up play, doing the hard work that enables his teammates to add the finishing touches, and this is why he has become such an influential player for both Sharks and the Springboks.
That is not to say that he doesn’t score points at all though, as he is always available as an option, getting into good positions to receive the ball. In this image, he is on the outside of his team’s attack, having noticed a gap ahead of him that he can exploit and potentially score through.
One key thing we associate with South Africa’s tactics during games is quick passing, allowing them to expose spaces before their opponents can close them off. Kolisi makes an angled run once he receives the ball here, as the green arrow shows, and gets over the line to score the try. The key point to take is that he will always be wherever his team need him, and there is no doubting that this will be the case against the Lions too.
In conclusion, this article has highlighted four players who could be influential for South Africa in the first test against the British and Irish Lions. We have looked at how each is essential to different parts of the Springboks’ play, and how the British and Irish Lions will need to be wary of the individual threats they pose. There is no underdog in this game, with both teams very capable of winning, and both have quality in every area of the pitch, so it really will be a case of who plays better on the day.