GAVIN RICH: Boks at a huge disadvantage in series
To put it bluntly both SA Rugby and the Lions need the TV rights money, but SA Rugby in particular
The team that wins the forthcoming series between the Springboks and British and Irish Lions is going to drive a narrative of triumph overcoming adversity, of winning against almost insurmountable odds.
That is probably just about the only thing we can be certain of as we head into what should be a tumultuous final fortnight of build-up to the series kickoff in Cape Town on July 24. Tumultuous for all the wrong reasons, with Covid-19 and the disruption the pandemic brings likely to remain the main talking point ahead of the rugby after the revelation that the Covid-19 positives in the Springbok camp, including management members, number as many as 26.
That pales the Lions’ count from the past week — one player and one management with the one positive being a weak one — into insignificance and makes Lions coach Warren Gatland look a little silly for continually talking about the huge challenges his team is facing being a unifying and strengthening force.
Surely that counts both ways, with the Springboks being even more hard-pressed to rub coal together to create a diamond. At this point the Boks look likely to be without their captain Siya Kolisi and Handré Pollard for the first Test, as both are among the positive tests, and so are fellow members of the 2019 World Cup starting team Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe and Makazole Mapimpi. Two other players likely to have been in the reserves, Frans Steyn and Ox Nche, are also on the Covid-19 list.
You can add to the list of players who won’t be lining up to sing the national anthem at Cape Town Stadium the injured Duane Vermeulen and RG Snyman. Vermeulen and Pollard were regarded as the two most indispensable Bok players at the Rugby World Cup, now it looks like the hosts will have to start the series without them.
The cancellation of the second Georgia match means the Boks will go into the series with just one Test match behind them since the World Cup final 20 months ago. They haven’t trained at all this past week, and while there is talk of playing many of them in the SA A fixture, the fluid Covid situation makes it uncertain that will be possible.
As if all of that doesn’t already amount to a huge disadvantage for the hosts, you also have to add the probability that they will be surrendering one of their big advantages in any home series against any opponent — the altitude factor. It is looking more probable the entire series will be switched to Cape Town, and Gatland has already admitted that would favour his team.
You factor all of those things together and it is the SA coaches, at least one of whom is Covid-19 positive and in self-isolation, who have to get their players to do something extraordinary to win the series. Not Gatland.
But you can’t blame Gatland for answering direct questions with an honest answer for the even greater impact on the Boks of the pandemic doesn’t change that he and his players are facing challenges no previous Lions touring squad has had to deal with. And he’s been left to hog the media space because of the complete silence from the Bok camp.
Far from being open and transparent as Rassie Erasmus promised they would be when he first took over as coach, the Boks have responded to crisis by retreating into their laager like never before. At the time of writing there hasn’t been a Bok media conference for a week, and this in the build-up to a series that needs every available minute that there is to market it.
But then it is becoming increasingly apparent that the emphasis is just on getting through the series, with the financial bottom line being even more important during these Covid-19 times than it was previously.
To put it bluntly both SA Rugby and the Lions need the TV rights money, but SA Rugby in particular. If there was no series and no TV money, SA Rugby would be bankrupt, or at least close to it.
I could pontificate on the mistakes that have been made, on how the decision should have been made last September to postpone this tour to 2022. And yes, if the administrators running rugby globally were responsible instead for running Nasa we would still be waiting for the first American to land on the moon.
All of that though is irrelevant because now that the tour has started the show must go on no matter what. The alternative will bring disastrous ramifications for the sport and the determination from both sides to get the games played is admirable.
Just to get through the series and for it to be a good one will justify the use of that cliché of rugby being the winner. Under the circumstances anyone who contributes to a successful series will be winners regardless of who wins on the field.
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