These Springboks may have had a decidedly troubled build-up and be the most under-cooked World Cup champions to host the Lions of all time, but if ever a team could play on muscle memory it's this one.
Almost two years on, remarkably, Jacques Nienaber has been able to retain 11 of the starting line-up from the World Cup final win over England, including four of the pack and the entire back line.
The 23-man match-day squad features 17 from 23 on duty against England and includes 21 players who featured in that triumphant campaign in Japan. Furthermore, Nienaber has stuck with the same forward pack that began the 40-9 victory over Georgia less than three weeks ago, with Faf de Klerk, centres Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am and wings Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe the five men recalled.
What's more, nine of this starting XV began the South African A win over the Lions last Wednesday, with Mapimpi, Handré Pollard (who will win his 50th cap), loosehead Ox Nché, hooker Bongi Mbonambi, captain Siya Kolisi and number 8 Kwagga Smith strengthening that side.
While the frontrow is not what was anticipated, nor as strong looking as that of the World Cup final, the bench features Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff, who were replacements that day, and Frans Malherbe, who started against England.
The Springboks’ starting XV have 553 Test caps between them, with a further 225 caps among the replacements which has a traditional 5-3 split for the first test as opposed to the 6-2 so-called Bomb Squad used in the knock-out stages of the World Cup.
Eight of the starting line-up, and a dozen of the match-day squad, have been playing their rugby abroad, be it France, England or Japan.
Kolisi was one of 14 Springboks to test positive for coronavirus, forcing him to self-isolate in Johannesburg for 10 days. But like Mapimpi and Nché he has undergone medical screening and been passed fit to play, ableit given the backdrop to this first Test, it comes as quite a surprise to learn that the players' families have been admitted to their bio-secure bubble in Cape Town.
In any case, familiarity abounds, with established combinations in the seondrow, halfback and midfield, which was all understandably part of Nienaber’s plan.
“That is very important. Obviously selecting players that have been in the system and know what you want to do is quite important. I think that’s probably what we’re looking for, is for those players who’ve been there before to give us guidance and steadiness and a calm head and find solutions. Because I think there will be a couple of new pictures which will be thrown our way and we will have to be forced to make solutions on the day.”
Show of confidence
For all the concerns among South African journalists and pundits – Willie le Roux was also a doubt due to a hamstring issue – ultimately, only the retired Tendai Mtawarira and the injured Duane Vermeulen have been ruled out from that World Cup final XV.
In their stead come Nché, the twice-capped 25-year-old Sharks loosehead and Smith, the quick, dynamic, Japan-based 28-year-old whose six previous starts have been at flanker and whose skills have been partially honed on the 7s circuit.
Nienaber even brought the team announcement forward by 24 hours, which has been interpreted as a show of strength.
“Irrespective if we announce it [the team] on a Wednesday or a Tuesday, the players knew the 23 on Monday. There was a couple of players that were bracketed to make sure everybody got through the first training session,” said Nienaber.
Warren Gatland will confirm his selection for the first Test at 10am on Thursday morning and Nienaber, not inclined to be as mischievous as his Lions counterpart or Rassie Erasmus, is excited by the challenge of facing a less predictable team.
“There’s multiple ways that they can look at the game. They can go with the aerial bombardment, they can go with an outpassing, outflanking game, they can come direct – it will probably be determined by their team selection.
“So that’s going to be one of the bigger challenges I’m looking forward to – to see how we can handle that.”
South Africa: (vs British & Irish Lions, first Test, Cape Town Stadium, kick-off 5pm Saturday, live on Sky Sports) Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz); Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse), Lukhanyo Am (Cell C Sharks), Damian de Allende (Munster), Makazole Mapimpi (Cell C Sharks); Handré Pollard (Montpellier), Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks); Ox Nché (Cell C Sharks), Bongi Mbonambi (DHL Stormers), Trevor Nyakane (Vodacom Bulls), Eben Etzebeth (Toulon), Franco Mostert (Honda Heat), Siya Kolisi (Cell C Sharks, capt), Pieter-Steph du Toit (DHL Stormers), Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Júbilo).
Replacements: Malcolm Marx (Kubota Spears), Steven Kitshoff (DHL Stormers), Frans Malherbe (DHL Stormers), Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks), Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse), Herschel Jantjies (DHL Stormers), Elton Jantjies (Pau), Damian Willemse (DHL Stormers).