OPINION: The game on Wednesday night (Thursday NZT) in Cape Town has made the test series a lot more interesting. I am still uneasy about the tour going ahead, and think it should have been moved back here, but we now know just how big an achievement it would be for the British and Irish Lions to win the test series.
Just as it was in 1997, it is all about the first test. I feel that if the Lions do not win that, we will see a 3-0 series whitewash for the Springboks. They are starting from a strong base and will only get better and better from here as they play together more and more.
There is a huge amount of talent in South Africa but, because of what is going on in the country, the team is fragmented. Many of their best players are spread around the world in England, France and Japan chasing money. The situation is not unlike that of Fiji and, in a way, that is sad.
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This last month has definitely highlighted how important a proper Lions tour, and the revenue that would have been generated for the union with full stadiums and travelling supporters, could have been to South Africa.
Perhaps it could have helped them keep some players at home to avoid the logistical issues that they must face when assembling squads. They are world champions despite dealing with all that, so imagine how good they could be. They could be the best rugby nation in the world.
I truly believe that the Tri Nations and, latterly, The Rugby Championship, has been difficult for them. The time differences have made it tough for the players to travel and also mitigate how well they can market it.
With some of their provincial sides involved in the Pro14, and the United Rugby Championship as it is going to be known from next season, could South Africa join the Six Nations instead of Italy? I wonder how seriously that is being weighed up. It would be in the South African autumn every year, when they have traditionally been involved in Super Rugby, and would make a lot of sense to me.
There is no doubt that their quality would enhance the competition. Winning a grand slam would become a phenomenal achievement. People keep complaining that Italy are not getting any better and should be replaced by Georgia, but Georgia would be in the same boat.
Although the flight to South Africa lasts around 12 hours from Europe, the minimal time difference means there is no jet-lag and the acclimatisation process is much easier than going to Australia and New Zealand. All things considered, I think the South African Union has a lot of big decisions ahead of it.
In my view, South Africa still do not receive enough credit for the nuances in their game. We all know that they come out and bash you, that they are immensely physical. You only need to look at Pieter-Steph du Toit hammering into every single breakdown. Jasper Wiese has been a revelation in the Premiership with Leicester Tigers because of that edge.
But there is so much more to them as a side. They are so good at winning the tiny battles that go on around the pitch in every second the ball is in play. There is a determination that they will beat their opposite man. That could be in a race to a loose ball or something seemingly less significant like the height that they hit a ruck or a scrum. When you play against them, everything is a struggle. Their hardness defines them, but they have subtlety as well.
You have two choices when you play against them. You either front up or you keep the game moving super-quickly. You do not carry around fringes into their biggest men and allow their back-rowers to dictate terms. You go from touchline to touchline at a high tempo so they cannot dominate. Of course, that is easier said than done against the Springboks
The Lions do have a chance in the series if they get over the line a week on Saturday (Sunday NZT). And we could see Marcus Smith starting at first five-eighth. Who would have thought that a year ago – even three months ago when Harlequins were struggling? It has been a remarkable rise for the kid out of Brighton College.
On Saturday (Sunday NZT) against the Stormers, he has to play his own way. With the Lions, I found that coaches attempted to mould scrum-halves and fly-halves.
My attitude was, ‘I am only here for eight weeks. You should change for me, not the other way around’. Maybe that was why I did not get picked all the time, but Smith cannot go in there and attempt to play like Owen Farrell. That just is not his game.