A tour of uncertainty: The Lions in South Africa

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The usually highly anticipated Lion’s tour has faced bumps in the road in the build-up to the three Test matches against South Africa. With the most significant issues for an international rugby tour typically being injuries and squad selections, Covid-19 has become the third opposition causing serious problems for both camps.   

Warren Gatland’s Lions squad has played four out of five warm-up games against Sigma Lions, the Sharks, and South Africa A. There were convincing wins for the Lions in the first three; however, Wednesday night’s game against South Africa A, which was ‘all but a Test match’, was a challenge of a different calibre. 

South Africa A was a team of Test quality players, many of which were in the 2019 World Cup winning squad, itching at the bit to play. 

The game was a rude awakening for the Lions, whose first-half left much to be desired, with it taking half an hour to get on the scoreboard. 

The Lions showed up in the second half, playing much better rugby but the three-time winning South African defence proved unbeatable this time with the final score of 17-13 to South Africa A. 

This game has been the first real challenge that the Lions have faced on the pitch. Massive lessons were learnt about physicality, and players’ performances will undoubtedly be essential in determining the test squad.  

The Lions have also faced critical disruptions due to Covid, although they appear almost minor compared to the Springbok’s struggle. 

Up until now, Gatland has been a closed book around revealing the potential starting XV for the Test matches. His position is understandable with only so much to be learnt from the previous convincing wins with average margins of 43 points. 

This, paired with the constant threat of positive Covid-19 cases taking players out of the game, makes naming the upcoming Test team precarious. 

The combination of mostly victories, positive Covid tests, and players returning from injury –  notably Alun Wyn Jones who will be returning to captain just 18 days after he dislocated his shoulder – has created a lot of competition among the players for the coveted Test places.

The three Test matches between the Lions and South Africa are scheduled to be played on Saturday 24th July, Saturday 31st July and Saturday 7th August. 

Predictably, Covid-19 has impacted both teams in the build-up to the Tests. In the past two weeks, fourteen Springboks have tested positive for Covid, and Jacque Nienaber, the head coach, is also isolating. The rest of the squad resumed training on Sunday 10th July after spending a week isolated in their hotel rooms. 

Overall, South Africa has had twenty-six positive Covid cases across staff and players, resulting in their warm-up match against Georgia being cancelled. 

Unfortunately for the Springboks, their Test against the Lions will only be the second game they have played since beating England in the 2019 World Cup Final. 

On top of the entire squad missing a week of training, the six latest positive cases, including the World Cup winning captain Siya Kolisis, will need to isolate for a further ten days according to South African government guidelines. These players will have missed two weeks of training before the first Test.

The Lions have also faced critical disruptions due to Covid, although they appear almost minor compared to the Springbok’s struggle. 

Gregor Townsend, the Lions attack coach, four other staff members, and a player have been isolating since Wednesday 7th in the Johannesburg hotel, with the rest of the squad continuing on to Cape Town. Like many of us students over the past year, Townsend has adapted by now coaching via Zoom.

Until we watch the hosts take on the Lions on the 24th July, it is hard to say the full extent of Covid’s impact on the teams. Disruption is assured while the potential for key players to be unable to play due to isolation is also a possibility. 

But if South Africa A’s win on Wednesday is anything to go by, the World Cup Champions are entirely capable of a formidable performance despite Covid-19, and the Lions need to be ready.

Image: Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament via Flickr

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