South Africa is the land of the rugby giants. The Springbok legend is built on big, tough forward packs made up of monstrous prop forwards, monstrous lock and roving units in the back-row.
Rassie Erasmus was once a flanker for the South Africa team and when he took over as national team coach and set about restoring the team’s reputation, he started up front.
There are many facets to the remarkable job the former Munster supremo has done since returning home, but making the Springbok forwards great again stands alone.
Twelve years ago, the Lions were bullied by a World Cup-winning pack that was built on the legendary second-row partnership of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield.
In front of them, John Smit switched seamlessly to tighthead with help from Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis alongside him. In the back-row, the underrated Juan Smith was paired with the diminutive but devastatingly effective Heinrich Brussow and the incredible specimen that was Pierre Spies.
That pack blew Paul O’Connell’s eight away in the first Test in Durban, with ‘The Beast’ scrummaging Phil Vickery off the park. Everything flowed from that forward dominance.
For the second Test, they brought back Schalk Burger. On the bench were Danie Roussouw and Andries Bekker. That game is remembered for those individual moments in the closing stages, but it was the power Pieter de Villiers brought off the bench that turned the tide.
When the Lions go to South Africa, size matters.
Erasmus still had ‘The Beast’ on his roster when he set about rebuilding a ‘Bok pack that had been emasculated in the years that followed 2009.
Hammerings at the hands of New Zealand and Ireland, the World Cup loss to Japan and the defeat to Georgia eroded the aura that came with the green and gold jersey. By the end of 2019, the fear was back in opponents’ eyes. With a small window to turn things around, Erasmus leaned into the ‘Boks’ strengths. Almost every good team in Europe has a Springbok back-five forward.
Erasmus decided to use his resources across the 80 minutes, building his ‘bomb-squad’ bench with a new tight-five and jackaller Francois Louw ready to come on against tired bodies in the second half.
The starting pack wasn’t bad either, the way they dismantled the England scrum in Yokohama sent a message.
“You probably had every team in the world looking at it,” Tadhg Furlong said of the World Cup final show of strength. “You want to get that dominance in a game. In those big games, it can be a fear element that you never want that to happen to you. It was such a big part of the game and it was the deciding of it.”
Of the front-row that started that night, ‘The Beast’ has retired and Frans Malherbe is on the bench. Bongi Mbonami remains, while the enormous Malherbe is joined in reserve by the technically excellent Steven Kitschoff and the brilliant Malcolm Marx.
The lock stocks have been depleted by injury. RG Snyman was a key part of the reinforcements, while Lood de Jager is only fit enough for a place on the bench.
In the back row, Pieter-Steph du Toit is joined by captain Siya Kolisi but Sevens international Kwagga Smith is untested. Replacement Rynardt Elstadt only has two caps at the age of 31.
Indeed, the Lions starting pack is on average taller and heavier than the Springboks whose bench has more weight to its name – based mainly on what Malherbe brings to the table.
The ‘Boks in the South Africa ‘A’ team that beat the Lions showed the level last week but Warren Gatland was emboldened by how the tourists’ scrum got stronger, how they mauled and won the exchanges in the second half.
“You have to match their physicality because you can’t allow that dominance,” Gatland said.
That’s the key. The Lions are quietly confident, but matching even a diminished Springbok pack is easier said than done.