RASSIE ERASMUS, South Africa’s Director of Rugby, and Jacques Nienaber, the Springbok head coach, believe that the appointment of Gregor Townsend to lead the Lions attack and the selection of five Scottish backs in the 37-man squad can give the touring party a dangerous extra dimension during this summer’s tour.
Warren Gatland’s coaching success over the years for both Wales and the Lions has often been associated with a simple but effective approach to rugby which involves building momentum through big runners coming hard down narrow channels (nicknamed ‘Warrenball’), but the New Zealander has always insisted that he has the flexibility to adapt his style to suit the personnel at his disposal.
And the Springbok management team say that his squad selection for this summer’s tour means they will have to keep an open-mind about how the Lions will play.
As well as Scotland head coach Townsend overseeing attack, scrum-half Ali Price, stand-off Finn Russell, outside-centre Chris Harris, winger Duhan van der Merwe and full-back Stuart Hogg will all hope to win a place in the Test team’s backline, while Gavin Vaughan – a Welshman who has worked with Townsend at Glasgow Warriors then Scotland since 2012 – could also be a big influence as one of four analysts in the Lions set-up.
The other Scots involved will be loose-head prop Rory Sutherland, tight-head prop Zander Fagerson and flanker Hamish Watson. Steve Tandy, another Welshman in Scotland, is in charge of defence.
“The way Warren has picked this side, the way he has picked his support staff and his assistant coaches, and the way we he has selected a squad of Scottish backline players with Gregor in there, I think he’s got something up his sleeve,” said Erasmus, who stepped up to the Director of Rugby role after being head coach of the Springbok side which lifted the 2019 World Cup.
“I don’t think we are going to see this battle of attrition – grinding it out like the semi-final in the World Cup [when Gatland’s Wales lost 16-19 to Erasmus’s South Africa] – I think he’s got other plans.
“And with the tour finishing with two Highveld games [in Johannesburg], and the loose-forwards he’s picked, yeah, I think he’s got a few plans.
“Because he’s done this so much – coaching the Lions – he obviously knows what the pitfalls are in getting guys to be aligned very quickly,” Erasmus added. “So, I think the way he has selected his team, his captain, his support staff, especially his coaches, and then his attack coach combined with who the Scottish guys are, we will definitely see a bit of changing in his game-plan.
“But he might be throwing us just some bait, I’m not sure.”
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Meanwhile, Nienaber – a close friend and collaborator with Erasmus for almost 25 years, who took over as Springbok head coach in January 2020 but is yet to lead them into a match due to Covid – believes Gatland has given himself the scope to have the Lions play a variety of ways this summer.
“I think he’s selected a well-balanced side,” said the 48-year-old. “At full-back, you can say Stuart Hogg, Elliot Daily, Liam Williams, Anthony Watson, and the others as well like Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit, they are all good under the high ball – Duhan van der Merwe has improved a hell of a lot – so if you look at that side of things they can go the aerial route.
“But then, like Rassie said, if you look at the magic of a Finn Russell and Ali Price combination, I think he has selected a well-balanced side.
“Rassie and I discussed it yesterday, they can literally go coast to coast, or they can adapt it and maybe go with a massive kicking games, with a nine that can kick, a ten that can kick, and if he plays [Owen] Farrell at 12 he has a kicking option there, with a left and a right option.
“So, I’m not sure what he can go with – and he might just be throwing us bait – but I think it is a well-balanced side and he can go with either or.”
While the Springboks might be unclear as to exactly what kind of game-plan they should expect from the Lions, one touring player they do know a fair bit about is van der Merwe, who came through the South African system before moving to Europe in 2016, initially spending a season with Montpellier in France, before settling in Edinburgh for four years and qualifying to play for Scotland through the controversial three-year residency rule last summer.
“In 2014, Jacques was high performance manager in South Africa Rugby helping with all the junior Springbok teams, and Duhan was in the Handré Pollard team which played in New Zealand [Under-20 World Championship] and lost in the final, so we know him pretty well,” said Erasmus.
“I think he played SA Schools, he played SA Under-20s and I remember sitting in an office with his dad discussing his future in sevens, and I remember him having trials at the sevens. I’m not sure why he didn’t make that, or whether he wanted to go into the 15-man game, but he’s come the full path in South Africa rugby, and we are not of the mind-set that because he isn’t playing here then he doesn’t deserve to play anywhere else.
“We feel that if a guy goes over there – like CJ Stander or whoever – then good for him, and the way he has played, nobody can argue.
“It is weird, in a way we are proud of him, although obviously when we play against him it is going to be tough.
“We are happy for him, and we know him really well, and he will obviously know most of our guys really well.”