While there’s still plenty of rugby to be played between now and the first kick-off of South Africa’s Test series against the British & Irish Lions in July, there are certain figures from both camps that, barring injury or major loss of form, will almost certainly have huge roles to play. With that in mind, we take a look at three battles that could shape the outcome of the tour.
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Eben Etzebeth v Maro Itoje
Two completely different players albeit two that have enormous impacts on their respective teams. If he hasn’t already, Etzebeth is approaching legendary status at the Boks. Boasting 85-Test caps at just 29-years of age, his performances at Toulon suggest he has plenty left in the tank and that another World Cup is very much on the cards. The former Bok captain hardly ever has a bad game, and his relentless physicality and aggression has kept him at the very top of the world game since he debuted in Green and Gold against England in Durban back in 2012.
Itoje, meanwhile, is favourite to captain the Lions on this year’s tour. The Saracens second-rower may not be as overtly powerful as Etzebeth but he makes up for that in his role as arguably the most annoying player on the planet. In a good way.
Itoje’s ability to ruffle feathers at the breakdown, and his uncanny ability to put boxkicking scrumhalfs under constant pressure has been at the forefront of most of his teams’ successes in recent years. His natural athleticism and Cristiano Ronaldo-esque fitness levels means he never seems to tire and gives his all from minute one to eighty. Having tidied up his discipline, he is an asset to any side and is a shoo-in for a Test starting position.
Steven Kitshoff v Kyle Sinckler
Kitshoff is expected to lay claim to the Bok’s No 1 jersey in the post-Mtawarira era, and quite rightly so. The Stormers loosehead’s scrummaging is up there with the very best in the world and his work rate around the park belies a man weighing in at a whopping 120kg. A natural-born leader, an impressive Test series from Kitsy could catapult him into “best in the world” conversations; something the talented 29-year-old has always threatened to do since debuting in 2016 against Ireland in Port Elizabeth.
Lining up against him at scrum-time could well be Kyle Sinckler, arguably the best ball-handling tighthead in the game. Tadhg Furlong’s recent injury run may give Sinckler the edge and while he may not be as adept a scrummager as the Leinster man, he more than makes up for it in his ability with ball in hand. The Bristol Bear will give Warren Gatland more running options on attack and if he can match Kitshoff when packing down, could go on to have an unforgettable series.
Duane Vermeulen v Billy Vunipola
Having stood out in the Bulls’ successful Currie Cup run, Vermeulen remains undroppable at the Boks. The No 8 has led a storied career thus far, playing the game all over the globe and cementing his place in Bok folklore by being named Man of the Match in the 2019 World Cup final. Vermeulen has been vocal about adding a Lions Test series win to his long list of accomplishments and Jake White’s decision to rest him during the upcoming Franchise Cup may ultimately work in the national side’s favour. Expect a determined and focused Vermeulen to leave a big mark on the series.
Vunipola’s form has been wayward of late, having not played ahead of the ongoing Six Nations tournament due to Saracens’ Premiership relegation. Still, his physicality is likely to persuade Gatland to utilise him against the might of the Bok pack and he should remain an asset to the Lions if he can pick up a good head of steam. Much like the rest of the Englishmen to be named in the squad, he’ll feel he has a point to prove after a certain loss in Yokohama on 2 November 2019…
Written by Shaun Goosen.