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Negatives, positives for Lions and Boks

The brilliant try scored by Ihaia West that earned the Blues an exciting and historic win for the Blues against the British and Irish Lions would have hurt the tourists, but those who think it automatically means they have no chance in the series against the All Blacks should think again.

In 1997 the touring Lions lost their fifth match against the Bulls at Loftus. The final score – 35-30 - reflected a close game, but I was there that day and there was really only one team in it before the Lions came back after the game was already gone. Yet few South Africans will forget that it was the Lions who ended up winning the series against the Springboks.

Okay, a green and inexperienced coaching team did help the Lions’ cause in 1997, but it does need to be recognised is that the Lions are still at this point a scratch team working at coming together as a unit. And while they are the worst of the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, the Blues were a tough opponent to play in just the second match.

It is interesting to note that the Kiwis aren’t travelling the same route that South Africa did in both 1997 and 2009 by taking international contenders out of the mix in the selections for the provincial games. At least not at this point. It could work for or against the Lions.

In 2009 they went into the first test in Durban feeling confident because they’d done so well against provincial teams. But 30 minutes into the Kings Park match it was evident that the games against understrength local sides had left them some distance short of being ready for what John Smit’s Springboks threw at him.

So while there could be an argument in favour of softening up the Lions in the provincial games, hard games like the one they played in Auckland will also toughen them up for the looming series. The Blues don’t bring the same line-speed on defence as the better New Zealand teams, but the Lions did get a taste of the brilliant off-load game and eye for space that makes Kiwi rugby special.

What won’t help the Lions is if they try to play the New Zealand teams at their own game – at least not at this point. You can’t perfect a good attacking game built around the offload and a great understanding between the players in just a few matches. What we did see at Eden Park though was the potential strength of the Lions pack, and of course coach Warren Gatland has placed a strong emphasis on press defence for many years with Wales. If the Lions are going to win the series, it will be around those strengths that their quest for supremacy will be based.

Seeing the teething pains that come with the early development of a new team brings me to the Boks and their series against France that starts at Loftus on Saturday. It does indeed take time to develop a complete game and coach Allister Coetzee did have the excuse early last year that he had a new side that was developing.

After a season together and 12 games together, even though most of the way 2016 was a complete disaster, the Boks no longer have the excuse of being new to the coach or the coach new to them, and the players new to each other. Most of the players in the squad called up for the series were part of the mix last year.

So the conservatism that is expressed in one of Coetzee’s stock phrases about getting the balance right – something which I think just confused the Lions (Gauteng) players who arrived at the Boks last year having had the no fear approach of Johan Ackermann instilled in them – shouldn’t have any place in the discourse now. Not 12 months later and not after most of the local Super Rugby teams are playing with ambition.

What should be a worry though is that the Boks don’t look that well equipped in the key areas where they would need to be strong for an all-encompassing game to be successful, and while the recall to the group of Frans Steyn has added some experience, the backs, and the outside backs, look a little too green and also a little bit small. At least the latter point holds true if you compare them to the Antipodean teams.

For me there are too many players at the back who have yet to prove themselves at international level, and the same could be said at loose-forward now that the injured Duane Vermeulen is out of the mix. Fortunately the French have sent out an understrength squad, for the best way to get experience and grow as an international player is to win, and the Boks do have a chance of doing that against a weakened French group.

The training camps are an addition that Coetzee didn’t have the benefits of last year. Brendan Venter has also been added to the coaching group since the end of the last November tour, but at this point, on the eve of the kick-off to the international season, there aren’t enough substantive positives to justify any huge optimism. I hope I am proved wrong.

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