Likely Lions and South Africa Test teams have been compared

The scene is the Lions hotel in Sydney on the night of the tourists’ defeat in the third Test in 2001 which meant the series went to Australia.

“Have you enjoyed the trip?” a reporter asked Lions team boss Graham Henry as he relaxed in the bar that evening.

“I like winning,” came the three-word reply.

That’ll be a ‘no’ then.

Lions tours are about many things but, ultimately, the ones that tend to be most fondly remembered in this part of the world tend to be those that end in triumphs.

So how will the one this summer play out?

Injuries picked up during the trip always play a part.

But maybe we can compare the likely teams the protagonists will field for the opening Test.

MARK ORDERS takes a look.

Willie le Roux 8 v 8 Stuart Hogg

Ex-Wasps man le Roux has been playing in Japan, and playing very well. In fact, it’s been suggested the talented playmaker has been coasting in some games, with crossfield kicks and slick handling to the fore.

He won’t be able to coast against the Lions.

Like his opposite number, Hogg is a free spirit who isn’t averse to showcasing his running game. He had a strong Six Nations with Scotland and is at the peak of his powers.

There’s not much between these two, then.

Cheslin Kolbe 9 v 8 Anthony Watson

Advantage South Africa.

Kolbe is out of rugby’s magic circle, a player capable of breathtaking sorcery that can embarrass even the best defenders. Giving him hint of a chance and he’ll take it.

Watson is high-class as well.

The 27-year-old played in all three Tests on the last Lions tour and is a player with guile, pace and deceptive strength.

Lukhanyo Am 8 v 8 George North

Am was once classed as “the most complete of the Bok centres”, and he has gone on to deliver on his potential. Ask him to deliver a physical game and he’ll do so; challenge him to come up with creative touches and he will oblige once again.

North has been reborn this season, playing well for region and country.

He has made the switch to centre effortlessly at Test level and has the speed and physical presence to cause any opponent problems.

Damian de Allende 8 v 8 Robbie Henshaw

Trying to find a way past de Allende at the last World Cup was akin to looking for a way out of the Conwy Valley Maze at midnight.

The South African seemed to know what opponents were going to go even before they did. Everything he did was done without panic, too. It was all very impressive.

But Henshaw has plenty to offer as well.

Maybe he’s been the best-performing centre in the British Isles this season, with some of his displays for Leinster and Ireland regularly amounting to veritable masterclasses in the defensive arts.

Makazole Mapimpi 8 v 8 Liam Williams

Mapimpi has a try-a-game strike rate at Test level since breaking into the Springboks’ team in 2018, with 14 touchdowns from as many internationals.

He’s heading back from with the suggestion being that the lethal finisher will retain his place in South Africa’s side.

Williams has an all-round game that few back-three men can match.

His aerial skills are world-class, he can counter-attack dangerously and is a fearless defender. If there’s anything on a rugby pitch that fazes him, someone ought to tell us about it.

Elton Jantjies 6 v 7 Owen Farrell

South Africa would likely want Handre Pollard, the man who steered them to World Cup glory, to be fit, but a knee injury sustained while playing for his French club Montpellier last September has left him facing a race to be fit to face the Lions.

Jantjies is next in line.

Is he a safe pair of hands?

Some think not, arguing he makes too many mistakes.

Others feel he has the attacking ability to spark the Boks.

What isn’t in doubt is that having a fly-half who blows hot and cold is a risk.

Farrell’s first challenge will be to secure a place in the side after an ordinary Six Nations for both him and England.

But Gatland likes the mental steel of the Wigan man.

The odds are that the Kiwi will find room for him, but it won’t be a blank cheque and Farrell will need to find some his best form.

Faf de Klerk 9 v 7 Conor Murray

South Africa’s Faf de Klerk

How good was the South African against the Scarlets recently?

His line-speed caused the west Walians no end of problems and his box-kicking and decision-making were high class. Jake Ball had a go at ruffling his flowing locks, but the highlights stayed in place. On the day, de Klerk was a cut above.

Murray is himself capable of lifting his game to great heights.

But he hasn’t consistently been at his best this season.

The Lions will hope the real Conor Murray stands up.

If he does, de Klerk will have a tussle on his hands.

Steven Kitshoff 8 v 9 Tadgh Furlong

A heavyweight duel if ever there was one.

Kitshoff is a powerhouse scrummager who fronts up around the field, while the same goes for Furlong.

Possibly, Furlong is the best tight-head in world rugby.

Wexford’s finest has an all-round game and stacks up big numbers when it comes to tackling and carrying.

Bongi Mbonambi 8 v 8 Ken Owens

At the last World Cup, Mbonambi’s line-out throwing was of the Phil Taylor-meets-Eric Bristow variety. Deadly accurate.

It gave South Africa a key edge.

But Owens has just banged in a huge Six Nations, during which he was once again the Welsh team’s emotional touchstone. When it comes to leading the charge, few do it better than the man from Carmarthen.

Frans Malherbe 8 v 7 Wyn Jones

Malherbe is 6ft 3in and 20st 6lb.

A TV commentator once referred to him as a monster.

Best of luck, Wyn Jones?

It’ll be a challenge.

But Jones has good scrummaging technique and excelled for Wales in the Six Nations. In some of their matches, his work-rate around the field was extraordinary.

He will never lack for effort.

Eben Etzebeth 9 v 9 Maro Itoje

South Africa have problems at lock amid a glut of injuries and will hope Etzebeth isn’t out for too long with the painful finger problem he picked up recently.

He’s a mountainous figure at the heart of their pack, a man whose strength borders on the stuff of legend. If the Lions can’t find a way to counter his physicality, they’ll have problems.

But Itoje has his own special qualities. Not for nothing was he recently named the most influential player in world rugby.

The England man lives on the edge of the offside line — occasionally straying over it — achieves turnovers, puts in carries, piles up tackles and never allows opposition scrum-halves a moment’s peace with his ability to charge down kicks.

Franco Mostert 7 v 8 Alun Wyn Jones

British and Irish Lions lock Alun Wyn Jones shakes hands with supporters

Lood de Jager and RG Snyman are doubts for the series as they recover from injuries, so it could mean a call for Franco Mostert.

There are worse cabs waiting to come off ranks.

At 6ft 7in Mostert is a safe line-out option and he gets around the field.

He won’t offer anything Jones hasn’t seen before, though.

The Wales captain is a player who stokes the fires of those around him with the sheer force of his example. He often looks tired from minute two but in minute 80 he’s usually still there, giving as much, if not more, than team-mates or opponents.

Siya Kolisi 8 v 8 Tadhg Beirne

Like Alun Wyn Jones, Kolisi is an inspirational leader.

Like the Welshman, he will not ask anyone to do a job he wouldn’t do himself.

Injuries have followed him around over the past year, though.

If the Lions go with Beirne as their blindside, the Boks will have to contend with a player who’s freakishly good at the breakdown, strong in the line-outs and a force as both a tackler and carrier.

Pieter-Steph du Toit 8 v 9 Tom Curry

Two years ago, du Toit was feted as the best player in the world.

But he’s endured a nasty injury that leaves him racing to face the Lions.

The thinking is Gatland will opt for a big pack and the 17st Curry will be his choice at openside.

One half of the Kamikaze Kids — his mate Sam Underhill suffered an injury midway through the season which knocked him out of the Six Nations — the man England forwards coach Matt Proudfoot reckons could become another Richie McCaw is a ball pilferer who makes life hugely difficult for opponents.

He also carries strongly and is an all-round nuisance to play against.

Duane Vermeulen 8 v 9 Taulupe Faletau

There remain few more terrifying sights for a defender than Duane Vermeulen charging forward with not the slightest intention of changing course.

Only the bravest stand their ground.

Vermeulen will be 35 when the Test series unfolds against the Lions, but the old warrior is still delivering, helping the Blue Bulls lift the Currie Cup in January and subsequently being named South Africa’s player of the year.

As a ball-carrier few better him.

But maybe Faletau has the edge when it comes to all-round mastery of the No. 8 position.

The Wales No. 8 is the complete package, a player with power, footwork, intelligence and courage. The bigger the game, the better he plays.

A World XV picked right now would have him in it.


South Africa 120

Lions 121

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    April 15, 2021 - 6:28 pm

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