South Africa will host the British and Irish Lions for the 14th time this summer but the tour will be very different compared to the last meeting between the teams in 2009.
The Springboks were only confirmed in March as the opposition for Warren Gatland’s men with the coronavirus pandemic causing a plethora of problems.
With Australia’s advances turned down and the prospect of hosting the tour in the UK rejected, an itinerary was finalised for the world champions to remain as the side to face the Lions in a three-match Test series to take place in South Africa but a key component set to be missing is the noise of a crowd.
Currently the opening Test in Cape Town and the two remaining fixtures in Johannesburg will be played behind closed doors due to concerns over Covid-19 and the virus will ensure life for both sets of players is in complete contrast to the World Cup in 2019.
With restrictions in place and bio-secure bubbles the order of the day, South Africans and the Lions will even more than usual have to get used to their own company with cabin fever a concern for Gatland and opposite number Jacques Nienaber over the next six weeks.
A balancing act away from the pitch will be required by the two men, who have varying degrees of experience at this level.
This is Gatland’s third tour as Lions head coach while rookie Nienaber is still waiting to take charge of South Africa for the first time since stepping up from his defence coach role after the World Cup win two years ago.
Playing no Tests since that crushing defeat over England in Yokohama is just one of the problems the 48-year-old has encountered in the build-up to this series with the selection of several key members also up in the air.
Duane Vermeulen (ankle) and Lood De Jager (broken leg) face a race against time to play the Lions while Munster duo RG Snyman and Damian De Allende are recovering from burns suffered in a firepit incident earlier this month.
Add on top the late arrivals of several players to camp due to their involvement in the English and French domestic league play-offs and you could forgive the former physiotherapist for cursing his luck.
“It is such a rare occasion and unbelievable occasion to play the British and Irish Lions so yes you would like everything to go perfect,” Nienaber admitted.
“Destiny is sometimes a thing. You can’t control the destiny of getting injuries or cards but we will give destiny a hell of a go because we know discipline is going to be massive. We have identified that.”
Nienaber’s mention of discipline was significant and in reference to the Lions’ last tour away to New Zealand in 2017 where it finished as a 1-1 draw.
A key moment in the series was All Black Sonny Bill Williams being sent off in the first half of the second Test which Gatland’s men won to ultimately make it two tours without defeat.
The Lions are unbeaten since losing to South Africa 12 years ago and they will come up against an old foe when they face the Springboks this summer with two players from that series involved again – a rare feat in the modern era.
“For all the players it is colossal,” Nienaber said. “The specialness of facing the Lions is it will probably only come once during your career as a professional rugby player and that is what makes it so special.”
Francois Steyn and Morne Steyn are set to break the norm after they were included in Nienaber’s 46-man squad on June 5 having been big figures in South Africa’s previous 2-1 win over the Lions.
Bulls fly-half Morne Steyn kicked a dramatic injury-time penalty in the second Test to clinch the series in 2009 and is back in the fold for the first time in five years with his experience set to be crucial, especially with Handre Pollard – the World Cup-winning number 10 – only recently back from a knee injury.
Again like 12 years ago, the Lions take on a Springboks group fresh from lifting the Webb Ellis Cup and the big challenge for the tourists will be dealing with the physicality of the world champions.
England were battered and bruised by the end of a 32-12 thrashing in Japan and South Africa’s pack will again hold the cards as the Scots, Welsh, Irish and English join forces once more.
The influence of director of rugby Rassie Erasmus will be crucial to Nienaber, who steps up to the task of head coach for the first time in his career after numerous other duties since his first post in the sport at Free State Cheetahs in 1997.
A long-standing relationship between the World Cup winners goes back to their time together at the University of the Free State but now it will be Nienaber in the firing line having been a key part of Erasmus’ backroom teams at Cheetahs, Western Province, Stormers and Munster in the past.
Bloemfontein-born Nienaber has his own history with the Lions. One of the first autograph books given to the modest flanker was from his father who collected the signatures of every Lions member of the 1974 squad that won 3-0 in South Africa.
Fast forward almost 50 years and the Springboks head coach has the honour of leading his country into battle against the British Isles. He will hope the result is a different one.