'Runs on the board aren't going to matter as much': Why the Springboks squad for the Lions is wide open for South African players
The late changes to the British & Irish Lions coaching staff ahead have been the talking points of the Lions tour this week, but the Springboks camp has just as many hurdles to jump through in order to get preparations underway.
As their former Super Rugby franchises try to find a way into the UK for the Rainbow Cup, concerns over their ability to enter the UK were raised after hearing there would be ‘no guarantee’ of being able to arrive in May given the border restrictions in place.
Whilst their Super teams are yet to know if they will play, the Springboks began their ‘alignment camps’ last week in a number of locations in order to try and put the entire squad on the same page. Despite the difficulties in doing so, former Blues hooker James Parsons speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod believes this allow the squad to hit the ground running.
“Their alignment camps are split up so they are doing the Sharks in Durban, Stormers in Cape Town and obviously the Japanese players are doing it via Zoom, then they’ve got someone based in the UK doing the UK,” he said.
“So it’s all a little bit separate but I think it’s quite good because they cover their logistics, you get a lot of your game plan imprinted, your language, so you can just wipe off so much admin stuff and get the knowledge down into your books.
“At that level a lot of the players will start visualising and thinking about it so once they do get together, they can actually hit the grass and start running these things pretty much straight away.”
One of the problems the Springboks will have to face is the lack of game time the players have had at the international level after withdrawing from The Rugby Championship in 2020. The squad that won the Rugby World Cup in Japan is nearly two years older, meaning that selections could be based more on form than reputations.
Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard hasn’t played for Montpellier since suffering a serious ACL knee injury in September 2020. He is due to return to action in the coming weeks but will be left with a tight window to prove his fitness for the Lions tour.
World Player of the Year in 2019, Pieter-Steph du Toit endured an injury-ridden 2020 which forced the star to undergo multiple surgeries in a bid to save his career.
“Hard to know how they will select [the squad], because they haven’t seen a lot of footy,” Parsons said.
“I think there is a lot of excitement for the players in that sense as well, so if they are invited to these Zooms or catchups, you are a real chance to play a Lions tour in South Africa if you perform for your club side.
“If you are a form player, you probably have the inside running on selection because you got to pick on form. Runs on the board aren’t going to matter as much because there has been a year in between playing.
“There is so much on offer. If you’ve got a low amount of caps or a high amount of caps, it’s probably not going to matter as much as it normally would.
“There is still a need for experience and reward for things like that, but there is more opportunity than there normally would be I reckon in the current setup.”
One of the form Springboks in the Gallagher Premiership is centre Andre Esterhuizen, who missed the final cut for the World Cup in 2019, could be in contention for a recall following his performances for Harlequins.
The school of thought from Parsons that positions are up for grabs runs opposite to conventional wisdom, with many believing that the 2019 operation will be repeated with many of the same players and game plans. The former All Black highlighted the results from the latest Six Nations tournament that suggest otherwise.
“If you watch the Six Nations, the teams that did so well were actually the teams that had the most exciting game plans and the most flair.
“I believe there will be a lot more innovation, if you look to the 2019 World Cup it was quite a forward-orientated, tactical kicking game plan, physically dominant display. I feel that is has probably changed, based on the Six Nations.
“Wales were really innovative, France although a little inconsistent they were exciting to watch, Scotland played really keep-the-ball-alive kind of footy.
“It’s really hard to comment as we haven’t seen them play for so long, but I’m trying to work out how the British & Irish Lions will play based on what they’ve seen out of the Six Nations and who they are going to pick, and what is the best situation for South Africa to run with.
“Form does have to count.”
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