THE Lions have announced the itinerary for their five-week 2021 tour of South Africa, and with it comes a huge sense of disappointment that the Premiership has not shifted their position.
It is beyond me why they are not prepared to move the Premiership final forward by a week in June 2021 to support the Lions, or if need be come to some financial arrangement to make it possible for the tourists to have an extra week of training and play a match at Twickenham as an important part of their preparation.
I cannot see why it is not possible to arrange it, and they should be honest about their reasons. The game as a whole is better for the Lions, so how come one of the leagues is blocking them, and not saying why it takes that view?
The Lions is a mutual benefit for everyone. Players return with bigger profiles, and that is of benefit to their clubs, to the league, and to its broadcasters and sponsors. So, why would a league like the Premiership, that supplies so many Lions players, hinder it by showing no flexibility when it is for the greater good of the game? It beggars belief.
We are going to find out just how difficult a five-week tour is – but I’m a realist, and we have to deal with what we’re given. What we know is that it was hard enough last time in New Zealand with just six weeks.
However, it was also hard when the Lions first started and they were away for almost a year, and then, midway through their existence when they were away for six months, to where we are today.
What has not changed is that, ultimately, the Lions is all about winning. Sure, it’s about enjoying who you’re with, and making the most of the touring experience – but the end goal was always winning those Test matches.
It will be more difficult now it is a much shorter tour, and there will not be much time for sightseeing or off field activities. A six/seven week tour was pushing it to pull a team together, and now it will be even harder.
As ever, it will be down to the coaches and the players, but I don’t think it will change the mission. For instance, every Lions coach has gone on tour knowing what he thinks his Test team will be, and this will be no different.
What will be different for the players is that they will have two fewer games than last time in which to state their case, and also fewer training sessions. However, what also needs to be remembered is that there will be players on this tour who will never have experienced anything different.
If they get walloped because preparation time is not enough, then the Lions will have to reassess the situation – but I will always back the Lions to be competitive.
On the 1997 tour we had the first two Tests at sea level in Cape Town and Durban, and had clinched the series before we went up to altitude for the last Test.
However, Lions coach Warren Gatland has said that he is pleased with the schedule, and I also like the look of it. An itinerary which takes you round the coast before going up to the HighVeld and acclimatising for the first and third Tests (Soweto and Johannesburg) – with just a short trip back down to Cape Town for the second Test – should work well.
I spent six weeks out in South Africa during the World Cup, and it is still a great country for a Lions tour, when you can take in the Garden Route along the coast and wine estates around the Cape. Currently, it is inexpensive when it comes to food and beverage, although inevitably travel costs and accommodation will be ramped-up.
It would be a great pity if the team do not get involved in the community side of the game and mix with the supporters by seeing something of the Indian Ocean landscape after the Sharks fixture in Durban.
It is a difficult balancing act because Gatland always has to do what is best for the team, while also trying to keep something of the Lions ethos. As for the challenge from South Africa, not a lot changes.
They have just won the World Cup playing their traditional power game, and although there are slight changes in emphasis, the fundamentals of a heavyweight pack, a bruising defence and good kick-chase are still at the core of it – and I don’t think they will be any different in two years’ time.
I cannot remember South Africa ever having a running, jinking Carlos Spencer-style fly-half. Instead, they always have good, steady, reliable 10s who kick the ball accurately, move it when it’s on, but are not overly renowned for attacking flair.
Handre Pollard breaks the mould to a degree because he carries the ball more than most Springbok fly-halves, and also has size and a bit of flair.
It will be interesting to see who Rassie Erasmus picks to take over from himself as head coach, and also if the South Africans pick Test players in the games against provincial Super Rugby franchises, given that the tour is so short.
In 1997 we also played South Africa when they were world champions, and although they had lost a few from the 1995 World Cup-winning side, there was a big emphasis from the Lions on first matching them physically, and then taking our chances.
If England had matched them physically in the World Cup final a month ago, then they could have won – but they couldn’t, so they didn’t. In 2009 the Lions got dumped in the scrum in the first Test – just as England did in Yokohama – and if you let that happen against South Africa there is no way back.
However, if you have the physicality to confront the Springboks, as we did in 1997, and you also have a running game that can stretch them, you can beat them. My feeling is that if South Africa continue to play as they are now, then they will lose to the 2021 Lions.
You cannot be a flat-track bully for ever and expect the opposition to keep falling over. People like New Zealand, and the Lions, work you out, and beat you.
Last but not least is the question of who will be the next Lions captain. Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones will have the odds stacked against him because he will be 35 by the tour and faces huge competition in the second row, where Maro Itoje and Ireland’s James Ryan are also captaincy contenders – although, at the moment, neither captain their country.
Itoje would be a nailed-on England captain if he didn’t applaud penalties and get involved in the gamesmanship of tapping opponents who have made mistakes on the shoulder. Captains have to be bigger than that, and as long as he does it he won’t captain anyone.
That’s why the favourite at the moment has to be Owen Farrell. He has already been a Lions Test starter on two tours, and will probably be the first choice fly-half.
He is also the current England captain, and while Eddie Jones is in charge that is unlikely to change.
The future of the Lions is always an issue, and if five-week tours mean that the Lions are beaten in three tours in succession, because they lose the first Two tests due to lack of preparation time, then people start asking questions – even the players.
That’s why it is as important as ever that they win the 2021 series.
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