Springboks v British & Irish Lions – Key Battles
Titanic individual battles will add further excitement and drama to the opening Test between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The wait is finally over. At long last, two of rugby’s superpowers collide once again come Saturday, 12 years after the Springboks exacted revenge for the heartache of 1997 with a 2-1 series win of their own. Pride, honour and prestige are on the line for a new generation of stars, with the victors of the three-Test series also set to lift the inaugural trophy and earn professional era bragging rights until they meet again in 2033.
It’s the world champions against the Northern Hemisphere all-stars. Who will land the all-important first blow to go one-up in the series? These key head-to-head battles will go a long way towards answering that question:
Ox Nché v Tadhg Furlong
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber sprung two big surprises (pun intended) when he named Nché and Trevor Nyakane in the run-on side ahead of usual starters Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe and you can bet the prop pair will have a target on their chests in the crucial scrum battle, where Nyakane struggled in the two South Africa ‘A’ games.
With just two Tests to his name, against Wales three years ago and Georgia earlier this month, Nché is in for a baptism of fire in the biggest game of his life. The man who was hand-picked as Tendai Mtawarira’s successor at the Sharks will look to emulate the Beast’s legendary mauling of Phil Vickery in the opening Test of the 2009 series but faces a ferocious opponent in Irish strong man Furlong, who’s been one of the top performers of the tour.
Eben Etzebeth v Maro Itoje
They meet again. Two of the world’s top second-rowers and pillars of their respective teams, they had a high-profile heavyweight showdown in the World Cup final in Yokohama and resumed hostilities last Wednesday. Both were among the standouts in South Africa A’s 17-13 triumph and will be hell-bent on taking things to the next level on Saturday.
Theirs will be a two-tiered battle within a war. Tier one, setting the physical tone and tier two, winning the aerial chess match that is the lineout. The Springbok enforcer has the edge in physicality, while the English ace has the advantage in the set-piece. So evenly matched as last week’s Cape Town clash reaffirmed, the behemoths are on a supercharged collision course and something has to give.
Faf de Klerk v Ali Price
British & Irish Lions mastermind Warren Gatland certainly surprised with his chosen backline, omitting Conor Murray, Owen Farrell and Josh Adams. Scotland scrumhalf Price has been in sensational form, scoring and creating some cracking tries, but it was widely thought that Murray’s vast experience and stature in the squad would see him start in the No.9 jersey.
Both sides primarily kick off nine, so these two’s execution will be pivotal. In that regard, it’s also surprising that Price was preferred. He’s more of an attacking halfback and even though his box-kicking isn’t bad by any means, it’s not as tried-and-tested as Irishman Murray’s or De Klerk’s.
A key cog in the Green and Gold machine, De Klerk launches contestable bombs with cyborg-like consistency and gets great distance with his clearance kicks. Tactically astute, he knows exactly what to do and where and when to do it. He’s also capable of catching teams by surprise around the fringes and is the better sweeping defender, but his in-form Scottish foe can outplay anyone on any given Saturday.
Handré Pollard v Dan Biggar
Pollard’s presence in the starting line-up elevates the Springboks to another level. After winning a race against time following a long layoff due to a serious knee injury, fresh doubts over his availability arose when he was among those in the South African camp who tested positive for Covid after the Georgia Test.
With nothing seemingly able to keep the South African vice-captain from his long-awaited date with the British & Irish Lions, and the fact that Saturday’s showdown marks his Test half-century, Pollard will be ultra-motivated and will play a key role in one way or another.
A contested selection, Biggar has a ton of pressure on his shoulders. He’s done the job for Wales for years but is solid rather than spectacular. He also won’t have Farrell next to him as a second kicking option, so he’ll either prove his backers or detractors right.
No strangers to one another, Pollard pipped their last meeting – the tense World Cup semi-final two years ago – and their battle of the boot could prove decisive again.
Cheslin Kolbe v Duhan van der Merwe
The Springboks’ pint-sized wizard and a George-born giant square off in a David versus Goliath battle out wide. Both men hit the ground running upon their return to the Republic, Van der Merwe scoring a hat-trick in his British & Irish Lions debut against the Sharks, while French-based Kolbe wielded his magic in a Man of the Match performance of his own to inspire South Africa ‘A’ to victory over the visitors last Wednesday.
Scotland’s herculean wing set up a try and scored another in the second match against the Sharks and was one of the standouts against the Stormers as well to earn the No.11 jersey ahead of Welsh try-scoring machine Adams. At 1.93m and 105kg, he’s a freak athlete and will tower over his 1.70m, 74kg opponent.
Arguably the best player in the world at the moment, hot-stepping Kolbe has a unique ability to unlock defences in the tightest of spaces and is unstoppable with time on the ball. Defensively, he’ll need to be at his giant-killing best if he’s to contain the blonde-haired behemoth.
As thrilling as they are with ball in hand, their aerial battle will be fascinating as well, with Kolbe having shown time and time again that he can out-jump taller opponents through superior hunger. Expect fireworks and don’t blink.