The British and Irish Lions received a major boost after confirmation that all three test matches against South Africa will now be played at sea level. The plan called for the second and third tests to be played in Johannesburg, but Covid-19 fears have now prompted the entire series to be transferred to Cape Town Stadium.
The Springboks have traditionally been more successful in playing trial matches at altitude, but after “extensive consultation” with medical experts and with teams already in their respective “bio bubbles”, it was decided that the option was the best option. it was safer to stay put.
“The data only pointed in one direction,” said Jurie Roux, managing director of SA Rugby.
“The series has already been greatly disrupted by the 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 or isolated people. Going back to the Highveld now would put the series at a new risk. Everyone wants to see both teams, at their best, play an unforgettable series over the next three weekends and this decision gives us the best opportunity to see that happen.
Lions chief executive Ben Calveley said tourists were “fully in favor” of the decision, which is hardly surprising given the lessons of recent history. In 1997, when the Lions last won a series in South Africa, they won the first two sea level tests in Cape Town and Durban respectively.
The touring team could also be privately cheered on by Bok’s Day Team nominated for Saturday’s opening test, despite the presence of 21 members of the South African World Cup-winning squad of 2019. At first glance, running with the Pamplona bulls would be less intimidating than trying to escape a powerful local team, but several of the starting Boks have played little rugby lately.
Until recently, iconic South African captain Siya Kolisi and his teammates Makazole Mapimpi and Ox Nché all self-isolated with Covid-19 and had to undergo heart and lung tests to ensure their participation. The forward-facing six-on-two bench division, dubbed the ‘Bomb Squad’ at the 2019 World Cup, has also been temporarily disabled with Boks opening half Handrè Pollard and winger Mapimpi n ‘ being not considered to have played enough recent rugby to justify the risk of having only two full-backs in reserve.
Also at No.8, the absence of the ultra-physical Duane Vermeulen through injury prompted Kwagga Smith for promotion, a very different type of player with a seven-man roster. Then there’s the fascinating decision to leave without doubt South Africa’s two best props, Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff, off the bench and start the match instead 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 running out of rugby, the Boks will rely on muscle memory to some extent. . Head coach Jacques Nienaber, however, made it clear that keeping Malherbe and Kitshoff on the bench is a deliberate tactic. “We see our first ranks as a couple, as a unit,” he said. “We can trade them and there will be no weaknesses.”