The British and Irish Lions will bid to go 2-0 up in a Test series for the first time since 1997 on Saturday, but it is Rassie Erasmus who has become a public eye in the build-up to the game.
The Springboks director of rugby has sparked a debate on the sport’s values and future with his hour-long video critiquing the refereeing in the first Test.
In the opener, the world champions’ 12-3 half-time lead was overturned to give the Lions a 22-17 victory at Cape Town Stadium.
As Erasmus’ side fight to remain in the series, the Springboks boss has put everything – even his reputation – on the line.
“This is a once in a generation opportunity [for Erasmus],” Ugo Monye mentioned on Rugby Union Weekly.
“The prospect of them losing the Test series by 7 pm on Saturday is unimaginable.
“The only thing that matters is winning and you do whatever you can to ensure your team has the best chance of winning.
“Every celebrity coach is a complete control freak and now he is trying to control something which most people can’t control – the performance of the referee.”
Lions stayed focused in the midst of controversy
On Friday, Lions captain Siya Kolisi backed his boss and accepted that he wasn’t recognized” by referee Nic Berry in the opening Test.
Earlier, Lions coach Robin McBryde had called the controversy a “sideshow”, while Rugby Australia released a statement condemning Erasmus’ comments about the Australian referee.
Erasmus may yet face punishment from World Rugby, but the Lions remain firmly focused on the monumental task ahead.
Matt Dawson – a member of the fabled 1997 side – said their second Test against South Africa was the deepest thing he has ever experienced. and the Lions are under no illusions about the task ahead.
“These are the biggest games I’ve ever been part of,” said full-back Stuart Hogg.
“They are a highly emotional side that will throw everything at us [on Saturday]. We love the challenge that is going to be coming our way.”
Lions step up the defense
McBryde said he expects South Africa to “go back to their physical nature” on Saturday, a suggestion backed up by the presence of six forwards on the Springboks bench.
But the hosts will be without prop Ox Nche because of a neck injury, with World Cup winners Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe starting in the front row.
In the only other change to the starting XV, Leicester’s Jasper Wiese replaces Kwagga Smith at number eight.
Monye believes Lions head coach Warren Gatland has named a “defensive team”, with the presence of experienced tourist Conor Murray at scrum-half hinting at a territorial kicking game.
Prop Mako Vunipola – who already has seven Lions Test caps – replaces Rory Sutherland in the front row, while Chris Harris makes his Lions Test debut as he takes Elliot Daly’s place at 13.
“The impetus is on South Africa to come out,” Monye said.
“They have to go out and win this game. Murray starting at nine is a definite nod towards a kick-compete, territorial battle.
“Chris Harris was brought on tour as a defensive 13 and he’ll be looking to close that space. That is why it is so important to get that first Test under your belt because it allows you to take fewer risks.”
Gatland prioritizes ‘happy players’ for success
Should the Lions claim a first series win in South Africa since 1997, Gatland will definitely steal some of the attention away from Erasmus.
The New Zealander was an assistant coach when Ian McGeechan’s side lost 2-1 to the Springboks in 2009, before taking on the top job for the winning tour of Australia in 2013.
After leading the Lions to a drawn series against the All Blacks in 2017, Gatland has the chance to maintain his unbeaten record as head coach and cement his name as one of the tour’s greats.
Hogg praised his boss’ approach, saying Gatland has found ways to get players’ families involved throughout.
“We’ve had photos in our room, messages in team selection – it makes all the sacrifices you make worthwhile,” he stated.
“If you get a happy, healthy human you get a wonderful rugby player and that is something he’s massive on.
“He’s up there with excellent coaches in world rugby. He’s done a great job but I know he’s not done. He wants to get everything out of everybody.”
British & Irish Lions: Hogg; A Watson, Harris, Henshaw, Van der Merwe; Biggar, Murray; Vunipola, Cowan-Dickie, Furlong, Itoje, AW Jones, Lawes, Curry, Conan.
Replacements: Owens, Sutherland, Sinckler, Beirne, Faletau, Price, Farrell, Daly.
South Africa: Le Roux; Kolbe, Am, De Allende, Mapimpi; Pollard, De Klerk; Kitshoff, Mbonambi, Malherbe, Etzebeth, Mostert, Kolisi, Du Toit, Wiese.