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Immortality beckons for Boks and Lions By Jon Cardinelli

Legacies and reputations will be on the line when the British & Lions face the Springboks in the third and decisive Test at Cape Town Stadium. Long after the pre-match shenanigans of the past two weeks have been forgotten, rugby fans will remember the result of the series, as well as the coaches and players who have earned their place in the rugby pantheon.

Lood de Jager was asked this week why there had been so much niggle and aggression on display over the course of the series. Without missing a beat, the South African lock spoke about the magnitude of the Tests and why everyone involved is so desperate to succeed. The pressure and intensity around these matches, as many players and coaches have pointed out, are on a par with a World Cup final.

The Boks are determined to emulate the class of 2009, a group of players that won the 2007 World Cup and then beat the Lions two years later. The coaches and players also realise that the opportunity to face the composite team from the northern hemisphere is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If they win – or even draw – against the Boks this Saturday, Gatland’s Lions will have completed an unbeaten run through the southern hemisphere.

Jacques Nienaber told The XV recently that he is all too aware of the Lions’ ambitions on a tour that may well be Warren Gatland’s last as head coach. The Lions beat Australia in 2013 and then tied the series with New Zealand in 2017. If they win – or even draw – against the Boks this Saturday, Gatland’s Lions will have completed an unbeaten run through the southern hemisphere.

Lions South Africa
Both the Lions and the Springboks have everything to fight for in the series decider (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The result of a Lions series in South Africa is not to be taken lightly, though. The Boks, as history tells us, are a far more dangerous team at home than they are abroad. Perhaps this is why visiting teams value one-off victories in this part of the world so highly. Series wins, evidently, are much harder to come by.

Indeed, when one reflects on the past series in this part of the world, one gains an appreciation for what Gatland’s Lions are up against. On the other hand, one begins to understand what the visitors are on the verge of achieving.

SA HOME RECORD IN TEST SERIES (OF TWO MATCHES OR MORE)

PLAYEDWONDRAWNLOSTWIN-RECORD
PRO ERA (1996-2018)20162280%
OVERALL (1891-2018)54407774%
V LIONS (1891-2009)1381462%
The Springboks’ overall home record in Test series is a formidable one

The Boks have lost only seven of the 54 Test series staged in South Africa over the past 130 years. The Lions have been the most successful touring team in this part of the world, having won four of the past 13 series against the Boks.

Two of those victories, however, came in the late 1800s during the early days of international rugby. The Lions’ latter two triumphs came in 1974 and 1997.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Jeremy Guscott struck a drop-goal to win the second Test and seal the three-match series. Since then, no team have beaten the Boks in a series of two matches or more.

Individually, the home nations have never managed to prevail in a series staged in this part of the world. New Zealand (1996) and France (1958 and 1993) are the only teams besides the Lions to succeed here.

OVERALL SA RECORD VS LIONS

YEARMATCH 1MATCH 2MATCH 3MATCH 4SERIES RESULT
2021L 22-17, Cape TownW 29-7, Cape TownTBD, Cape TownTBD 1-1*
2009W 26-21, DurbanW 28-25, PretoriaL 28-9, JoburgW 2-1
1997L 25-16, Cape TownL 18-15, DurbanW 35-16, JoburgL 2-1
1980W 26-22, Cape TownW 26-19, BloemfonteinW 12-10, PEL 17-13, PretoriaW 3-1
1974L 12-3,Cape TownL 28-9, PretoriaL 26-9, PED 13-13L 3-1
1968W 25-20, PretoriaD 6-6, PEW 11-6, Cape TownW 19-6, JoburgW 3-1
1962D 3-3, JoburgW 3-0, DurbanW 8-3, Cape TownW 34-14, BloemfonteinW 3-0
1955L 23-22, JoburgW 25-9, Cape TownL 9-6, PretoriaW 22-8, PED 2-2
1938W 26-12, JoburgW 19-3, PEL 21-16, Cape TownW 2-1
1924W 7-3, DurbanW 17-0, JoburgD 3-3, PEW 16-9W 3-0
1910W 14-10, JoburgL 8-3, PEW 21-5, Cape TownW 2-1
1903D 10-10, JoburgD 0-0, KimberleyW 8-0, Cape TownW 1-0
1896L 8-0, PEL 17-8, JoburgL 9-3, KimberleyW 5-0, Cape TownL 3-1
1891L 4-0, PEL 3-0, KimberleyL 4-0, Cape TownL 3-0
History isn’t on the Lions’ side but South Africans still remember the hurt of the 1997 series

It’s easy to forget about how dangerous the Boks are at home when one reflects on some of their recent one-off losses. They dropped a Test to England in 2018, to Ireland in 2016 and even to Argentina in 2015. Over the past decade, they have lost six of their eight home games against the All Blacks during the Rugby Championship. It’s rare that they lose two home matches in a row, though.

Ireland scored a historic win against the Boks at Newlands in 2016 and appeared to be on the verge of a monumental series result. The hosts hit back, however, to win the next two Tests in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.

Much has been said and written about the Boks’ fitness in the present series. Due to the Covid-19 situation in the country, South Africa was cast into the international wilderness for 20 months. It was feared that they would be severely undercooked for the three battles against the Lions. Even now, there are concerns that the Boks might not be able to maintain their physical efforts for a further 80 minutes.

The result will have no bearing on the Boks’ status as world champions and yet there is a feeling in the camp that they have a point to prove after being forced to miss nearly two years of international rugby.

Mentally speaking, of course, the South Africans have been preparing for this challenge their whole lives. The result will have no bearing on the Boks’ status as world champions and yet there is a feeling in the camp that they have a point to prove after being forced to miss nearly two years of international rugby.

While there will be nobody in the crowd this Saturday due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the Boks will have a clear idea about what they are fighting for, why they need to win this series and what this single victory could mean for the South African rugby legacy.

Part of the home side’s motivation is rooted in a deep respect for the Lions and what the touring side represent. As much as the Lions would treasure a rare win in South Africa, the Boks consider it an honour to compete against the northern hemisphere’s best.

“It’s the pinnacle for a South African rugby player,” said Bismarck du Plessis recently. The former Springbok hooker won a host of accolades during a career spanning nine years and 79 caps, including the 2007 World Cup and the 2009 Tri-Nations, but he still considers the 2-1 series victory against the Lions in 2009 to be his crowning achievement.

2009 British & Irish Lions Series
Bismarck du Plessis still considers the 2009 series triumph over the Lions as the highlight of his career (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

“It’s hard enough to make the Springbok squad for the World Cup, which is every four years. You need some luck, with regards to injuries and indeed the timing in your career, to make the cut for a Lions series.

“And once you play against them, it’s like nothing you’ve experienced before. Four unions competing as one. It’s a massive honour for those players to represent the Lions, but also an honour for teams like the Boks to play against the famous side.”

This game matters more than most, and it’s for this reason that the players – even those who won the 2019 World Cup – will have to go to a place where they have never been before.

Nienaber echoed these sentiments at the team announcement ahead of the third Test. This game matters more than most, and it’s for this reason that the players – even those who won the 2019 World Cup – will have to go to a place where they have never been before.

It’s tempting to suggest that this match might mean less to Lions players, that a series win in South Africa is not the be-all and end-all when the tour to Australia is only four years away.

And yet, it’s important to note what Gatland’s team might achieve in a broader context if they emerge victorious this Saturday, namely an unbeaten run through the southern hemisphere.

Fans might be tempted to dismiss the arm-wrestle or to declare that this will be a game like any other. For every coach involved and every player on the field, and indeed every coach and player that has come before, the result of the match at Cape Town Stadium will echo into eternity.

More stories from Jon Cardinelli

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