There were only meant to be three Tests on the British & Irish Lions itinerary but not any more. With 18 World Cup-winners in the South Africa “A” matchday squad involved at Cape Town Stadium on Wednesday the hosts are about to unleash their big beasts 10 days early and the Lions’ ability to stand their ground – or otherwise – in this unofficial “fourth Test” could significantly affect the looming series.
In many ways it is exactly what the tour needs to jolt itself out of a run of one-sided provincial games and sharpen everyone’s appetites prior to the first Test. With South Africa witnessing its worst rioting and looting in years, in addition to rising Covid infection rates, it would also be a good moment for the country’s rugby players to make their rainbow nation smile again.
With six players still isolating, including Siya Kolisi, it is not absolutely the strongest side the host nation could have mustered, but it is pretty close. Even if Lukhanyo Am, Faf de Klerk, Cheslin Kolbe and Damian de Allende do not give the Lions a collective hurry up, the heavy-duty home forwards assuredly will.
A major challenge awaits, therefore, for the Lions pack. So far they have not had to withstand a prolonged physical examination or scared anyone with the power of their scrummaging or driven mauls. If their opponents’ front five take a firm grip it will take serious remedial work for the Lions to win the first Test on Saturday week.
Even Warren Gatland, who keeps stressing the Lions do not want to show their full hand too early, knows that solid set-piece foundations are non-negotiable. Once the Bok forwards scent weakness they are seldom merciful and Gatland is about to learn much about his strongest combinations in the front row and back five.
It may also be a long evening if Dan Biggar goes down in an early heap, given there is no specialist fly-half cover. This is not the moment, either, for injury to sideline the squad’s new leader Conor Murray but, on the plus side, there are opportunities to be grasped. If Chris Harris and Anthony Watson show up well in adversity, a Test start could easily be their reward, with Tom Curry also looking for a big game to nail down the No 7 jersey ahead of Hamish Watson. As for Josh Adams, so prolific so far, will he find life slightly harder against the thrilling box of tricks that is Kolbe?
Then again, South Africa appeared more than a little rusty against Georgia in their only Test since winning the World Cup in Japan in 2019. Am, who will skipper the side, freely acknowledges that the squad’s Covid-affected preparation has been a long way short of ideal. “We couldn’t do much in the six days in which we were in quarantine,” the centre said. “We stretched and did basic workouts in our rooms. On the other hand we are going into the game fresh so we will see where we are physically.”
Having played alongside De Klerk and Coenie Oosthuizen for Sale in the Premiership, Curry at least knows precisely what to expect. With Leicester’s Jasper Wiese starting at No 8 for the home side, any air of mystery that might have surrounded him is also largely absent. But this is a Lions team still growing accustomed to each other and about to enter an unfamiliar arena in the shape of Cape Town Stadium which – having superseded the traditional rugby hub of Newlands – has yet to stage a rugby Test.
Nor has Gatland entirely forgotten the harsh lesson of 2009 when the Lions imagined they were ticking along nicely only to receive a rude awakening in the first Test in Durban. “We thought we were a little bit better prepared than we were,” Gatland recalled. “That’s in the back of the mind but we’ll get a good indication of where both teams are after Wednesday night’s match.”
Time, in other words, to put aside all distractions – the night-time curfews, the continuing isolation of the luckless Stuart Hogg in Johannesburg, the continuing absence of supporters – and to concentrate solely on this tour’s most eagerly awaited 80 minutes to date. If Gatland’s team can navigate this dress rehearsal they will feel they can cope with almost anything.