David Corkery on the Lions: Gatland must be careful not to divide the squad

'I would love to see the Lions rekindle some of the magic of 1997 but the South Africans need is greater and they are more united'
David Corkery on the Lions: Gatland must be careful not to divide the squad

Conor Murray and Alun Wyn Jones in training at Western Cape, South Africa. Picture: Ashley Vlotman/Sportsfile

AS someone who has toured South Africa on three occasions, I can categorically tell you that every time you took to the field, there was a very high chance that you would not finish the game in one piece.

Blunt, brutal, and sometimes callous is how the South Africans played in my time and the pitiless physicality they brought was only equalled by their ruthless pursuit of victory.

The studs on their boots were used on your back as a farmer would use a rotavator whilst tilling his fields and their elbows and knees often found the softer parts of your body that were helplessly exposed at the bottom of a ruck or maul.

I know the laws have changed completely in recent years and the game has been sanitised with the view of player welfare but if the British & Irish Lions are not able or willing to trade blow for blow with a Springbok side that has so much to play for, the game will be a foregone conclusion by half time.

Having the right to place the sign that reads World Champions over your dressing room door brings with it a certain amount of pressure but that will not be the main reason why the South African players will badly want to win this series.

Back in 1995 when Jacobus Francois Pienaar famously held aloft the William Webb Ellis Trophy with Nelson Mandela standing next to him wearing his number six jersey, not only did he create a bit of rugby history but, he and his players united an entire nation. And with the current wave of unease that is once again ripping through their magnificent country, rugby will once again be used as one of the tools that can mend the gap between black and white.

On a tour that many believe should not have gone ahead because of the worldwide pandemic, the Lions have only had one true test against South Africa A where they failed miserably to cope with the physicality that the South Africans brought to the party.

Initially, I had thought that the midweek games would be used by the hosts to soften the core of this touring side however, it has turned out to be the complete opposite.

Instead of being put to the sword in these warmup ties where Warren Gatland’s tourists could build up their resilience for what lay ahead in the three tests, they have amassed 243 points in five games averaging 49 points per game. This would be a magnificent feat if the tour was decided on a league basis but it's not and now they head into the first test as a side that are great on paper but will not be ready for the hard-nosed intensity that the Springboks will play with.

Unlike Gatland, who preferers to guide his troops suited and booted from the comfort of a corporate-like box, South African coach Rassie Erasmus prefers to don the boots and run the sideline wearing a bib. There are pluses and minuses for either approach albeit Erasmus really seems to be more in touch with his players' emotional state and this was particularly apparent during their World Cup success.

Tadhg Beirne and head coach Warren Gatland at British and Irish Lions training. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Tadhg Beirne and head coach Warren Gatland at British and Irish Lions training. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The confusing and somewhat medically abnormal return of tour captain Alun Wyn Jones to the squad has divided the rugby fraternity and Gatland, who likes a gamble, is certainly rolling the dice on this one.

Having dislocated his shoulder in the first warm-up game against Japan less than four weeks ago the Welsh legend seems to have made a miraculous recovery and has re-claimed his tour captaincy from Conor Murray. This is a big call by Gatland because if Jones' injury manifests in any way, shape or form, you can be sure the press will have a field day. 

He also runs the risk of dividing a squad and when that happens on tour, your chances of succeeding are completely doomed.

Let there be little doubt about it that like most games this one will be won or lost in the battles that ensue up front and it is the side that wins the tackle line and breakdown will head into next week's test with the advantage.

Instead of looking at these tests as three separate entities, both sides will look at the games as six 40-minute periods where players will need to be managed and the impact of the substitutes will be a vital feature.

The availability of South Africa captain Siya Kolisi after testing positive for Covid a few weeks ago is a priceless plus for Erasmus and he won't be shy in telling his players of what they are fighting for in this series.

I would love to see the Lions rekindle some of the magic that saw the 1997 squad return home victorious but, I just think South Africans need is greater and they are a more united side.

A win for the home team is predicted but, expect fireworks very early on.

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