For the first time in several days Table Mountain has disappeared beneath a veil of ominous grey cloud. It is forecast to be clear and fine again by the weekend but a gathering tension within the British & Irish Lions is in sync with the weather.
The final countdown to a Lions series can be foreboding, even for those already familiar with the rarified pressure. “Big boy rugby” is how the Ireland prop Tadhg Furlong describes it and his teammates are also braced for a serious examination.
“We have to be ready to put our bodies on the line and we will be fully prepared to do that,” murmured Courtney Lawes, typically keen to show South Africa from the outset that their red-shirted challengers are no pussycats.
That may yet prove this squad’s defining quality, with their skipper Alun Wyn Jones having set the unflinching tone with his unlikely return from what had seemed a tour-ending shoulder injury. Hopefully the body count will be an improvement on the series-deciding second Test in Pretoria 12 几年前, when seven players ended up in hospital, but these Lions are no-one’s idea of a faint-hearted squad.
Whoever starts – and a 90-minute selection meeting on Sunday evening has just left the i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed – the likes of Lawes and his Northampton teammate Dan Biggar sound like men who can sense a career-defining opportunity if the visitors front up physically. “I think everyone who plays against South Africa knows what they’re going to present,” confirms Biggar. “Unless you match it, you’re in a bit of trouble. You’re going to get overrun.”
Neither player has ever started a Lions Test before but both know their subject inside out. Lawes was in the starting England pack which went on to lose 32-12 to the Springboks 在里面 2019 World Cup final while Biggar was at fly-half in the semi-final when Wales, agonisingly, were beaten 19-16 by the same opponents.
Lawes insists such memories are not his primary motivation but they have given him an insight into “the DNA” of the world champions. “They are going to want to dominate us up front and we have known that the entire tour. We saw a glimpse of it against South Africa ‘A’ and we need to be prepared for that. I am excited for the challenge – they play a type of rugby I enjoy playing and I am looking forward, 希望, to getting out there and showing what I can do.”
Biggar, nevertheless, also recognises the need to play smart rugby rather than simply being dragged into the python-like coils of a Springbok pack who love to digest their prey at their own pace. “First and foremost it’s about making sure you play in the right areas and taking your chances,” the 31-year-old stresses. “We’ll have some plays up our sleeves to target some areas which we see as weaknesses. But ultimately, when you play this team, you know you’ve got to bar up physically otherwise everything you’ve planned goes out the window.
“That’s been the big message since we got together on day one. They want you to make errors in your own half to allow them to have territory and get into their power game. It’s about staying in the arm wrestle, not giving them anything cheap and then taking your chances when you get them.”
Avoiding the easy mental trap of peaking too early this week will be equally key. The Lions, based on the coast outside Cape Town, were given Monday morning off and will also be given a down day on Wednesday when nine holes of golf will probably be the extent of their physical commitment. In between, 尽管, there is set to be a lively training session at which those not involved in the 23 for first Test will naturally be seeking to release their frustrations.
“There will be some disappointed, frustrated bodies from the side that doesn’t get named,” predicted Biggar. “There is always a little bit of feistiness and frustrations sometime spill over. But that is a good thing, you don’t want boys to be moping around. You want to make sure there is an edge to it.” His long-time Wales colleague Jones, 同时, is “fit and raring to go” according to the Lions’ defence coach, Steve Tandy, who knows the 35-year-old lock extremelywell from their time together at the Ospreys.
Even among the players vying for the same shirt, just as crucially, there seems to be total faith in their captain’s supernatural recovery powers. “To try and get back in the team after just 30 minutes off the bench is tough but the man has got calibre,” stressed Lawes. “If he says he can go and give it 100% then we believe him.”