Civil unrest and Covid surge may distract Springboks – or focus their minds

Despite little outward public excitement in SA, Lions could find Boks united in crisis

British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland speaks to the team during squad training in South Africa on Monday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland speaks to the team during squad training in South Africa on Monday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

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There is currently little palpable excitement emanating from the South African public ahead of the first Test between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions, even though the game is a little less than a week away.

Make no mistake, millions of South Africans still love their rugby, and would like nothing more than to while away the next five days discussing team selections and the tactics that are likely to win the crucial first match of the three-Test series.

Normally an incoming rugby tour of the magnitude of the British & Irish Lions would be all over the local airwaves, television screens and newspapers, sparking frenzied debates among fans. Even more so when the Springboks are the current Rugby World Cup champions.

But the impact of the civil unrest that has rocked South Africa in recent days, coupled with its ongoing battle to contain a devastating third wave of Covid-19, is dominating media organisations’ agendas and people’s attention.

After former president Jacob Zuma was jailed on July 7th for refusing a constitutional court order to attend a corruption inquiry, violence and looting swept through many parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces for a full week.

So far at least 212 people have died in the mayhem – which the government suspects was orchestrated by intelligence operatives loyal to Zuma and his political allies – and hundreds of businesses and livelihoods have been destroyed.

Ordinary people in the affected areas have been more preoccupied with having to physically protect their neighbourhoods from marauding looters than the outcome of what normally would be an eagerly awaited sporting contest.

Rather than discuss the finer points of team sections, they are manning hastily-erected barricades and roadblocks day and night in KwaZulu-Natal to protect their communities from criminal elements and opportunists intent on participating in the unrest, although it has subsided in recent days.

Fortunately for the Lions, they are tucked away in the peaceful and tranquil Arabella resort near Hermanus, which is 90 minutes from Cape Town, the Western Cape’s provincial capital.

Mass looting

This part of the country has largely been unaffected by the deadly protests and mass looting, which thankfully failed to spread to seven of South Africa’s nine provinces. But most people in the Cape have friends and family caught up in the turmoil.

The Western Cape is also less affected by the latest wave of Covid-19 to hit the country than Gauteng, where the Lions spend their first two weeks of the tour, and the tourists have consequently been less troubled by the virus since they arrived here 10 days ago.

As of July 18th, South Africa recorded 11,215 new cases of Covid-19 and 183 more deaths. Of these 4,393 of the new cases were recorded in Gauteng and 2,156 in the Western Cape, making the latter the second hardest-hit province in the country.

When South African rugby fans do find a moment to consider next Saturday’s encounter, the question many people wonder aloud is how will the political and Covid-19 crises playing out impact the Springbok players and management?

They may be relatively safe in their bio-security bubble, but many of their friends and family are dealing with both crises head-on.

During the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, the Springboks’ management was able to use the desperate economic plight of their fellow South Africans to motivate the team to play a fearless brand of rugby that blew England off the pitch.

Could they use the current crises in a similar way, or might they have the opposite effect, distracting the players from the task at hand?

Rugby columnist Craig Lewis said recently that even though the Springboks’ preparations for the first Test have been severely disrupted by Covid-19 – far more than their opponents’ – the way their players fronted up in the South Africa A versus the Lions match last week bodes well for the hosts.

The match, which took place in Cape Town on Wednesday, was won 17-14 by the local side.

Writing in the online SA Rugby magazine, Lewis said that one could not overlook the fact that the game was played against a backdrop of a country in turmoil, and that this external adversity was drawing “this Bok group even closer together”.

Ferocity

“There was a ferocity from the SA A side that rattled the Lions in the early exchanges, forced the opposition into errors, and reminded them that the strengths and fighting spirit of this Bok group remains firmly intact despite the challenges recently faced,” he said.

He added that ordinary South Africans’ response to the unrest, which saw them band together to initially protect their communities but also to clean them up, was a powerful reminder that people from this country unite in a crisis.

“It’s why the Springboks can never be written off against the British & Irish Lions. There is a ‘superior discontent’ that courses through the veins of these players and it’s a driving force that is as powerful as it is proudly South African,” he maintained.

In his rugby column on Monday, Daily Maverick rugby writer Craig Ray also maintained the result from the SA A game was the best indicator of how the three Tests might play out, saying it showed the “Test series will be tight and physical” and the outcome was in fact a lottery.

“Neither team has form or much match practice going into the clash this weekend and both could be hobbled by selection issues beyond their control. Quite simply, there has never been a build-up like it and there is unlikely to be another to rival it again,” he concluded.

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