Last Wednesday week’s dry run for the first Test between the South African As and the Lions was perhaps not only a foretaste of what’s to come but also a reminder of what’s gone before.
During a 10-minute period either side of half-time, much of it against 13 men and within five metres of the South African line, the Lions had five tap penalties and circa 29 drives for the whitewash. Four times they were held up over the line. Once, even Maro Itoje was inches short. On another occasion Wyn Jones, battering ram in chief, was denied a try for a double movement. Finally, Josh Navidi and Iain Henderson latched onto Jones and he was driven over.
Thirtieth time lucky, so to speak. It seemed like a very Springbok show of defiance.
“I don’t think it’s just us,” maintained the Munster Springbok Damian de Allende this week. “I think every rugby player is like that. I think if you want to play international level, obviously growing up as a rugby player, not just myself, but you bring that one-dimensional game of skillset or work ethic or physicality. Some guys have it all in one.
“But I think once the pressure is on and you’re on the back foot, that’s when you need to stick up your hand and I won’t say try and be Superman, but you just have to put your body on the line and work as hard as you can. There are a lot of other Test teams who work just as hard. I think they will have the same desire to try and defend a try.”
Maybe, maybe not. But it was a reminder, lest we really needed one, that nobody seems to defend their line quite like the Springboks.
Roll back 12 years to the first Test in Durban.
The Springboks struck through their first powerplay with a fifth-minute try by Juan Smith. But within three minutes the Lions went upfield and from a scrum worked the ball via Brian O'Driscoll to Ugo Monye on the left touchline.
Monye dived for the corner, withstanding a covering tackle by JP Pietersen which might now be regarded as a seatbelt tackle, to plant the ball down over the line.
Whereupon Jean de Villiers, the Springbok who would soon become a Munster centre, slid in and somehow managed to reach out and place his right hand underneath the ball, so preventing it from touching the grass.
“Ya, I remember it very well,” De Villiers admitted this week to The Irish Times. “It was a bit of luck as well, because when Monye is scoring the try he hits the deck before the line and then there’s a bit of elevation from the ball off the ground and that gave me the opportunity to get my hand in there and stop the try from being scored.
“I suppose it was a critical moment when you look at the end result and I suppose much of that is the South African mentality as well of never giving up and doing whatever you can to prevent the try from being scored.”
Two more try-saving interventions by Bakkies Botha and Morné Steyn in the second-half demonstrate what De Villiers recalls as "the drama of that series".
“The Lions could so easily have won that first Test and that would have changed the third Test and the make-up of our side. But it could so easily have been so different.”
Was defending the line something they fine-tuned on the training ground or is it in their DNA?
“No, I think it’s in the DNA and that’s where that higher purpose thing comes in. You’re not just playing to win the game, you’re playing to get a result but by getting a result you’re providing smiles and hope and joy for the whole nation, and once that gets taken away it affects everyone. It’s not something you train.
“With the current squad as well, it’s almost a given. It must be there, and if it’s not then you don’t belong and I’m always so proud to see that kind of commitment from the teams. When you see guys really putting their bodies on the line it’s not as if when they make a tackle they stay on the ground and rest for a little bit. It’s literally throwing your body at it and within a second they’re back on their feet again to do the same.
“So yeah,” said De Villiers, pausing for a second. “I suppose it’s just a part of who we are.”
Trailing 26-7 heading toward the last half-hour, thereafter the Lions dominated. In the 50th minute, after a break by O'Driscoll and a charge by David Wallace, the Lions were encamped on the Boks line when Mike Phillips dummied, took a double tackle by Pierre Spies and Danie Rossouw and reached out for the line one-handed. Whereupon Botha slid in and with about a millisecond and a centimetre to spare hit Phillips's arm to dislodge the ball from his grasp just as he was placing the ball on the whitewash.
Even then, the Lions worked their way back into the match when O'Driscoll laid on his second try-scoring assist of the game to Tom Croft, trimming the Boks' lead to 26-14 in the 68th minute.
Four minutes later, Monye stepped inside Frans Steyn and was diving over the line, again looking sure to score, when Morné Steyn's covering tackle dislodged the ball from his grasp.
Although O’Driscoll had no immediate recollection of De Villiers preventing Monye from completing a touchdown in the eighth minute, he didn’t need reminding of the latter.
“I remember that one well,” O’Driscoll admitted to The Irish Times this week. “We were back in the game but for that tackle by Morné Steyn. The momentum was with us. They were waiting for the final whistle and we had managed to get ourselves back into it, having been absolutely owned in the first 20 minutes.”
Phillips would dummy and sneak over in the 75th minute, making it 26-21, but the Boks held on. Ultimately, those three desperate, last-ditch try-saving plays on their own line had been as significant as either of their own two tries or the scrum carnage Tendai Mtawarira had wreaked on Phil Vickery in the first 45 minutes.
As O’Driscoll puts it: “Defence is intent. That’s the reality of it. You want to defend or you don’t. It can be about technique all you like but ultimately it’s about the desire behind that technique and desire will override technique any day of the week.
“A big thing for them is spooking the opposition and scaring them. That’s one thing further out the field, trying to force opponents into making mistakes by being in their eyeline and all of that, and fast and furious; trying to almost coax you into something you don’t want to do.
“But then there’s the intent piece around your own line. There’s a ferocity to their game anyway but it feels as though they ratchet that up when they’re defending their own line. It’s almost like it is in their being, to avoid the embarrassment of allowing the opposition across your line. It’s a pride thing.
“Their whole game is built on physicality so if you breach their line via great play I think there’s almost an acceptance of it, but if they can be man-handled over their own line they see it as a slur on their physicality.”
Perhaps we should best leave the last word on this to themselves. In the absorbing and revealing Chasing the Sun documentary charting their journey from a seminal 38-3 defeat by Ireland in November 2017 to World Cup glory less than two years later under Rassie Erasmus, there’s a critical passage of last-line defiance in the final against England at 6-6 which would ultimately ensure the Springboks kept their try line intact for a third World Cup final, as in 1995, 2007 and 2019.
“Even if I was going to lose a shoulder or whatever, it might be break a leg, I was going to do it because that’s how much it meant for me to help South Africa achieve greatness,” says Mtawarira.
The documentary returns to that defensive set, where Sam Underhill and Dan Cole plunge toward the line but are held up by inches. Even Mako Vunipola and Billy Vunipola were drilled back.
“So you draw that line in the sand,” explains Duane Vermeulen. “And on this side you defend your family, your country, your people and you don’t let anyone get into that space.”
The white charges and the green tackles carry on remorselessly. This had become much more than a defensive set. This had become a statement.
“At a certain stage you see some guys smiling and you can feel the change, you can feel the shift,” adds Vermeulen.
On and on it continues, the white wave battering against the green wall.
Now the camera pans to an emotional Erasmus as he proudly watches the replay.
“You can see we’re not tackling the English there. They’re tackling for South Africa there. I’m not trying to make a cliche of something but they are defending that line as if it would be South Africa.”