Lions must be wary of the Bok-lash if they are to clinch the series against South Africa
Whether they have read about it, been warned about it or experienced it first-hand, the Lions know what stands between them and a place in British and Irish rugby folklore – a Bok-lash.
South Africa will hurl themselves into Saturday’s second Test here with the wild ferocity of desperate men. Their backs are against the wall following defeat in the series opener at the same grand, empty arena seven days ago. For the world champion Springboks, the stakes couldn’t be higher. They are on a ‘do or die’ mission to set up a decider next week.
Warren Gatland and his touring party have been looking past the Rassie Erasmus circus sideshow this week, to brace themselves for the prospect of fire and fury from their wounded opponents. The Lions know how motivated the Boks will be. They know how much this fixture matters and that if the hosts are going to go down, they will go down swinging this time.
The Lions can clinch the series on Saturday but only if they are wary of South Africa’s backlash
Warren Gatland’s men will know how motivated the Boks will be after losing the first Test
There has been some literary assistance, to help the visitors come to terms with what awaits them. ‘I’ve read a book “Ja-Nee”, by Dugald Macdonald, which gives you a South African perspective on the 1974 Lions series, after they lost the first Test,’ said forwards coach Robin McBryde on Friday. ‘That was enough of an insight for me, with regards to what the second Test means to them as a nation.
‘It was written by someone who played in the game. That second Test in 1974 was given the title of the most important game in South African history. It was really built up and he was reflecting on all the pressure that was on them as players.
‘It gives you a flavour of how much it meant to the nation and how much the first Test defeat hurt them. It gives you an insight into how they’ll be feeling at this moment and how they’ll be more determined on Saturday to make sure it doesn’t happen again. They’re a very proud nation who will be looking to come out with all guns blazing. That’s what we’re expecting.’
Aside from Erasmus’s social media tirades, the recurring theme of the past week is how South Africa respond in adversity. There is an assumption that the Boks will be possessed by a primal fear of failure, which will manifest itself in a thunderous onslaught.
Rassie Erasmus’ social media antics are less relevant than how well the Springboks respond
Robbie Henshaw has found himself in the path of that juggernaut before, when Ireland won their first Test here five years ago, only to slump to a 2-1 series defeat as the hosts fought back with trademark physical intensity. The centre is alert to a similar danger on Saturday.
‘They’re going to be emotionally driven,’ he said. ‘After the last game, they were saying that when their backs are to the wall, they’re a dangerous team. I know that personally from playing here in 2016, when we beat them in the first Test and they managed to over-turn us to win the series.
‘So they are massively dangerous and they are going to be well up for it. We need to be ready to match their power and the fire they’re going to bring. They can pull something out of nothing if you’re not switched on. They are able to run over you.’
All the Lions players are on guard. Another of the Irish contingent, prop Tadhg Furlong, added: ‘It is do or die isn’t it? I was part of a group four years ago that would have had a similar mind-set going into a second Test after losing the first. It is do or die and it means so much for players on our side and players on their side and everything they have achieved. Everything is on the line isn’t it?’
Robbie Henshaw (right) said the Boks are ‘massively dangerous’ and will be ‘well up for it’
There is a familiar rugby cliché about big games coming down to ‘who wants it most’ and that theory will certainly apply on this occasion, given that another close encounter is expected; another hard, abrasive, explosive showdown between two powerful sides. Of course the Boks will be desperate, but this is not a motivational one-way street.
So much is at stake for the Lions too. They also have powerful factors driving them on. Gatland’s squad know they are within touching distance of immortality. That is the prize for series success in South Africa – rare as it has been. The 1997 touring team achieved it and still enjoy the warm after-glow. The players seeking to emulate them know that a career-defining moment is upon them.
But there is another dimension on top of the quest to reach a professional peak. This is personal too. These Lions have sacrificed so much to reach this stage. They have been locked in a Covid bubble for two months, away from families and friends.
They have endured tough restrictions and come through an outbreak which threatened to wreck the whole tour. They have missed births and delayed weddings and done whatever it took because they care deeply about the honour of playing for this famous, four-nation team. Their devotion to the concept enhances the Lions and it should enhance their prospects on Saturday.
Stuart Hogg (centre) insists it would mean everything to him to become a series-winning Lion
Scotland captain Stuart Hogg had to endure lonely isolation, left behind in Johannesburg, before being picked at full-back for the last Test and this one. He was asked if it would mean a lot to him to become a series-winning Lion and he said: ‘Yes, 100 per cent. It would for everybody involved in the Lions; everybody who is on the tour and everybody who has done all the hard work at home in the build-up. Every single person wants to be involved in a winning Test series. We are all here with the same goal.’
The Bok-lash will be brutal. The Lions are good enough to absorb it and trump it, if they want this enough. Furlong summed up the equation for him and his team-mates when he said: ‘It’s trying to mentally get back up the hill to go play another huge Test game.’
If the Lions are emotionally right, they have the depth of talent to win. If they do that, they will go down in history.