‘Hobbit-sized’ Lions forwards’ pace puts South Africa on alert for series

The Springbok coaches believe the British & Irish Lions will have a significant advantage over previous touring teams when they fly out to South Africa next month. The Covid-influenced fixture list is set to reduce the effects of altitude on Warren Gatland’s plans and the Boks are also wary of the pacy “Hobbit-sized” forwards in the visiting squad.

With South Africa not having played since winning the Rugby World Cup in November 2019, the Boks’ director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and head coach Jacques Nienaber will be announcing a an enlarged squad of 45 next Saturday and are resigned to the fact that, with scant chance of crowds in stadiums, home advantage will be less of a factor than normal.

The hosts are particularly aware that the revised tour schedule, with games now being staged only in Gauteng and Cape Town, minimises the unfamiliar effects of altitude on the Lions. Previously the Test series was due to start and finish in Johannesburg but will now kick off in Cape Town, allowing the tourists to prepare at sea level for almost a fortnight in advance.

“It might be the first time that altitude will not play a role,” said Erasmus, who made his Test debut as a player against the Lions in 1997. “Warren is such a clever guy, he has worked out altitude now. And now the SA ‘A’ side are playing in Cape Town we don’t have altitude advantage there. The first Test is also in Cape Town and then we all move to Joburg. The altitude is the same for everybody, so I guess that’s one advantage that’s gone in this specific series.”

Erasmus, though, is adamant his team will be ready despite their chronic recent lack of Test rugby, claiming the sides will be “even par” in terms of their preparations. “We last played in 2019, so more recently than them,” said Erasmus. “Yes, it is a challenge and we haven’t played a lot together but we are almost in the same boat as the Lions who have to put four countries together with four different game plans, styles and cultures whereas we have one. It’s not ideal but it’s not the end of the world.”

The South African management are still not totally resigned to stadiums being empty for the entire tour – “We still have hope and we’re still asking but it is a long shot,” said Erasmus – but are respectful of a Lions party which has been dismissed in certain parts of the local media. One observer has suggested the Lions have attempted to pick “Hobbits to be giant slayers” but Erasmus believes diminutive back-rowers such as Sam Simmonds and Hamish Watson could yet have a big impact. “It’s interesting the way Warren has selected that squad,” said Erasmus.

“In winter at altitude I think those boys – and Sam Simmonds specifically – can move. I don’t know the selection policy but it looks like a good pack to me. The Lions is such a special thing. The World Cup is the pinnacle but, hell, it’s bloody close.”

In terms of South Africa’s selection, Leicester’s No8 Jasper Wiese has impressed the national coaches but the biggest issue for both sides will be the looming weeks they will have to spend inside a biosecure bubble, even if the hosts are trying to make it “as humane as possible.”

Infection rates across the country are on the rise but Nienaber believes a third wave will not necessarily wreck the tour: “I think we have a bit of herd immunity in South Africa because of how things are. The numbers are picking up but currently we can go to the pubs and have a beer and a laugh.”