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'I thought it was a bizarre decision' - Rassie's biggest strategic error?

By Ian Cameron
The Boks scrum came under pressure in the second half /Getty

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Two years is a long time in rugby, even when you factor in the disruption and layups brought by the pandemic. Yet for scrum nauses, the British & Irish Lions versus the Springboks first Test in Cape Town offered up one particularly juicy subplot that was worth the wait.


Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler, England’s starting props in the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final, were in the position to seek some restorative justice against a South African front row that humiliated them in Yokohama 21 months previously.

Although they didn’t start in Cape Town, the pair came on in the second half and were pitted against Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe, who were themselves being sprung from the bench.

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RugbyPass OFFLOAD | Episode 40 | Matt Stevens, Ryan Wilson and Max Lahiff on Lions Review and Preview, Scrum Battles and Royal Celebrations
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RugbyPass OFFLOAD | Episode 40 | Matt Stevens, Ryan Wilson and Max Lahiff on Lions Review and Preview, Scrum Battles and Royal Celebrations

It was a turning point in the match. The Lions had struggled for parity in the first half but they held the whip hand in the second, frustrating Jacques Nienaber’s men, starving the Boks of the platform that they craved.

Now former Lions and England tighthead Matt Stevens has given an insight into how Vunipola, with the help of Sinckler, turned the tables, an opportunity afforded by a ‘bizarre’ decision from the Springboks camp.

“When he got to Saracens he was just a terrible lump of lard,” Stevens told The Offload podcast. “He managed to condition that into something that still looks like a terrible lump of lard but he has an engine on him for days, he’s got ball skills like any of the backline players, that are playing in international rugby. It’s not like ‘he’s good for a prop’, he’s just good.

“He’s got a step on him. He’s got nuisance in the way he plays. He’s a super player. I don’t think there was anything wrong with his loose game.


“At that World Cup final, we all knew that if you didn’t have parity against the Springboks, they would be able to get into their game and play that game: that abrasive game, that line speed chase, have a good kicking game or front-foot ball, take good aerial ball in the air and just slowly break people down and then come back and play off the scraps.

“That’s what they did to us in the 2007 World Cup final. It’s the same team. There’s no changes.

“In that game [2019 Rugby World Cup Final] The Beast and Malherbe completely pinned [England]. They didn’t pin Sinckler, he just got completely taken out early on. That was a big changing point. That was a big changing point as mentally Kyle was ready for that game and the guy coming off the bench [Dan Cole] was ready to come on in the second half.

England scrum
The England scrum buckles in 2019

“If you come into a World Cup final ten minutes into it, it’s a scary place to be and then you’re at tighthead, which is just the most pressure you can have.

“He [Cole] got thrown into something he wasn’t ready for and got shamed.

“I was devastated for him [Sinckler]. The tighthead that came on, my old friend Dan Cole, got pinned and Mako was lifted.

“I don’t think Mako had the worst performance [in 2019]. I think he was put under pressure because the right-hand edge of the scrum tilted on its access and so he got lifted up through the left-hand shoulder and then he was pinned all game long.

Lions McBryde
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“And that for your confidence, being able to run around the park and through the ball around, hit rucks, get over the ball, the running rugby that he’s so good at, he wasn’t able to do that in that game.”

Stevens explains how Mako reversed that against the Springboks in Cape Town last weekend.

“Whereas in the second half [against the Springboks in the first Test], he gets confidence straight away.

“Malherbe is heavy, he’s got his axis up, Sinckler’s doing his job against the hooker and the loosehead, and Mako is able to come back and win that scrum. That couldn’t have done anything for the Springboks’ confidence, when they’re trying to get on the front foot and get that last score.”

Stevens also couldn’t get his head around why the Springboks took off Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Trevor Nyakane, who were getting the up hand against Rory Sutherland, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tadhg Furlong in the first half.

“I thought it was a bizarre decision. I didn’t understand it. Maybe Rassie was going ‘okay, we’ve got this’. Not Rassie, but Nienaber, but probably Rassie, saying ‘We’ve got this and maybe we need to give our big boys a full half before the second Test match.

“If that is the case, than wow, that is thinking way too far ahead, but Rassie is a way better coach than any of us.”


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